MD Anderson researchers Helen Piwnica-Worms and Richard Wood elected to National Academy of Sciences

Distinguished scientists honored for contributions to cancer genetics, biochemistry and cell biology

Two researchers from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have been elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Helen Piwnica-Worms, Ph.D., professor of Experimental Radiation Oncology, and Richard Wood, Ph.D., professor of Epigenetics and Molecular Carcinogenesis, are recognized for their respective contributions to advancing our understanding of cancer genetics, biochemistry and cell biology.

Piwnica-Worms and Wood are among 120 new members and 23 international associates recognized by NAS this year for their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Established in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, NAS is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research.

Piwnica-Worms and Wood join six previously elected scientists from MD Anderson, including James P. Allison, Ph.D., Neal Copeland, Ph.D., Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., Nancy Jenkins, Ph.D., V. Craig Jordan, Ph.D., and Guillermina (Gigi) Lozano, Ph.D.

“Drs. Piwnica-Worms and Wood lead groundbreaking research that has changed the landscape of science as we know it, reflecting the mission of MD Anderson,” said Peter WT Pisters, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “We celebrate this recognition of the outstanding impact they have on cancer research. Congratulations to our esteemed colleagues on this honor.”

Piwnica-Worms has made significant contributions to our understanding of the biochemical mechanisms of cell cycle regulation and to determining how perturbations in cell cycle control mechanisms contribute to cancer onset. She discovered the biochemical mechanism by which CDK1, a key regulator of mitosis, is activated or deactivated during the cell cycle and how its activation is prevented by cell cycle checkpoints. This was the first direct link demonstrated between cell cycle checkpoints and mitotic control.

Her work has been essential to the understanding of breast cancer development and progression, and her discoveries have prompted clinical studies for agents targeting the cell cycle and checkpoint proteins in multiple cancer types. She currently is focused on identifying alterations driving triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and therapeutic resistance mechanisms. This research has already demonstrated that chemotherapy resistance in TNBC can occur through adaptable and reversible pathways, and it pointed to new vulnerabilities in drug-tolerant cancer cells.

Piwnica-Worms holds the Senator A.M. Aikin Jr. Distinguished Chair and was elected into the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Fellows of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Academy, and the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science & Technology (TAMEST).

Wood has made foundational contributions to the biochemistry and genetics of DNA repair and cancer development, elucidating how eukaryotic cells are protected from ultraviolet (UV) radiation damage. He established the first cell-free system for nucleotide excision repair (NER) in eukaryotes, allowing him to precisely define the NER mechanism and identify key enzymes in UV-induced damage repair. By reconstituting the entire NER pathway using 30 purified proteins, he made it possible for the first time to determine the role of each protein at each step. 

These experiments included the discovery of the roles of replication proteins during NER and defining sequential NER steps at the molecular level, including opening the double helix by a multi-protein complex. The work revealed the specific biochemical defects in xeroderma pigmentosum, an inherited disease conferring a greatly increased risk of skin cancer. Wood also was also the first to isolate the XPG and ERCC1-XPF nucleases and discovered their action via structure-specific incision. This work helped found the field of DNA structure-selective enzymology, now studied in multiple areas of DNA biology. His recent work has yielded numerous discoveries that define the roles of various DNA polymerases in genome stability and cancer.

Wood holds the J. Ralph Meadows Chair in Carcinogenesis and has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (UK), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and as a member of TAMEST.  

“To be elected into the National Academy of Sciences is one of the highest honors a scientist can achieve,” said Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer of MD Anderson. “The extraordinary discoveries made by Dr. Piwnica-Worms and Dr. Wood prove that they belong to this highest echelon of researchers. We are proud to have them as part of the MD Anderson research community as our clinicians, scientists and patients benefit from their collaborations and impact. I want to congratulate all those elected to the National Academy of Sciences, whose impressive work drives us towards a better future.”