MD Anderson researchers recognized by AACR

Junior investigators Nicholas Navin, Ph.D., Kaysia Ludford, M.D., and Moran Amit, M.D., Ph.D., receive awards for cancer research

Three researchers from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have been honored by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and will give virtual award lectures at the AACR Annual Meeting 2021:

“Scientists and clinicians in the early phases of their career are crucial to our mission to end cancer and play a central role in driving innovation in all areas of cancer research, prevention, diagnosis and treatment,” said Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer at MD Anderson. “We congratulate these junior investigators on receiving such notable recognition from AACR for their high-impact work.”

Navin: Outstanding Achievement in Basic Cancer Research

This prestigious AACR scientific achievement award was established to recognize an early career investigator for achievements in basic cancer research. Navin was selected for his seminal contributions to the understanding of genome evolution and intratumor heterogeneity in breast cancer and for his invention of single-cell DNA sequencing, which has impacted many diverse fields of biology and biomedicine and has directly contributed to the establishment of the single cell genomics field.

Navin directs the CPRIT (Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas) Single Cell Genomics Center at MD Anderson and co-directs the Advanced Technology Genomics Core at MD Anderson. Navin’s laboratory focuses on the clonal diversity of breast cancer, particularly triple-negative breast cancers, and how it influences response to chemotherapy, with the goal of translating these findings to new strategies for therapy and early detection. The single-cell sequencing methods he invented are now widely used to study invasion, metastasis and therapy resistance in many different cancer types. Navin has continued to improve upon his original technique, as shown in a recent Nature study where he introduced a new method for single-cell DNA sequencing at single-molecule resolution.

“I’m deeply honored and humbled to receive the AACR basic cancer science research award this year, which recognizes our work on single cell genomics and breast cancer research over the last 10 years,” Navin said. “Few scientific achievements are made by a single person, and I would like to give all the credit to my hard-working lab members, colleagues and mentors who have made science a thrilling adventure to pursue every day.”

Navin’s award lecture, “Unraveling Cancer Evolution with Single Cell Genomics,” will be available to conference attendees for on-demand viewing beginning, Friday, April 9.

Ludford: Gertrude B. Elion Cancer Research Award

The AACR Gertrude B. Elion Cancer Research Award encourages and supports tenure-eligible junior faculty to conduct research in cancer etiology, diagnosis, treatment or prevention. Ludford was selected for a one-year grant to support her research on the interplay between ethnicity and biology in response to checkpoint inhibition.

“This award will provide invaluable support as I launch my career in academic medicine and unite my passion for patient care with my desire to address issues of health disparities in medical oncology,” Ludford said. “Studies have shown health disparities disproportionately affect minorities, often leading them to have worse outcomes than white patients, even if they have the same stage and type of cancer.

With funding from this award, I will be able to explore important, but unanswered, questions regarding whether there are differences in responses to immunotherapies among different ethnic groups.”

In a retrospective study of 44 patients with acral melanoma, the most common type of melanoma among Black, Asian and Hispanic patients, Ludford found that non-white patients had a six-fold higher response to checkpoint inhibitors than white patients, but not a significant increase in overall survival. Her research seeks to validate these preliminary findings and understand the biological mechanisms driving the differences, in light of the low representation of Black and Hispanic patients in clinical trials that led to Food and Drug Administration approval for checkpoint inhibitors.

Ludford’s award lecture, “Interplay between ethnicity and biology in response to checkpoint inhibition among patients with unresectable acral melanoma,” (LE01) will be available to conference attendees for on-demand viewing beginning Friday, April 9.

Amit: NextGen Star

AACR’s NextGen Stars program is designed to increase the visibility of early career scientists at the AACR Annual Meeting and to support the professional development and advancement of the awardees. Amit was selected for his abstract, “Cancer takes a nerve: Loss of p53 drives neuron reprogramming in head and neck cancer.”

Amit’s Laboratory focuses on mechanisms used by the nervous system to promote tumor initiation, progression and metastasis. In this study, he used multiple mouse models of oral cavity squamous cell carcinoma to determine how adrenergic nerve fibers promote growth in p53-deficient tumors. The findings describe a miRNA-based mechanism that reprograms peripheral sensory nerves during cancer development toward an adrenergic phenotype that can stimulate tumor progression.

“Targeting nerves and their signals is feasible and has been done for other conditions, such as high blood pressure and neurological diseases, but they haven’t received much attention for cancer research. I hope that our work will change that and bring a new avenue of therapeutics and hope for our patients,” Amit said. “The NextGen Star award will help us connect with other scientists studying cancer biology or neuroscience and create a bridge between those fields, positioning our lab and MD Anderson at the forefront of studying the nervous system as a potential target and new hallmark of cancer.”

Amit will present his abstract (NGO7) during the NextGen Stars Spotlight Session: Tumor Microenvironment, Metastasis, and Oncogenesis (Session SS02) on Sunday, April 11, at 2 p.m. EDT.