Versatile bench-to-bedside scientist, research leader Helen Piwnica-Worms appointed vice provost, science, at UT MD Anderson Cancer Center

"Uniquely qualified to guide ...sciences into exciting era of vibrant discovery, clinical impact"

MD Anderson News Release 02/15/13

Helen Piwnica-Worms, Ph.D., a leader and scientist whose success in cancer research spans the spectrum from basic science discovery through arduous preclinical follow up and delivery of potential new drugs to clinical trial, will lead science research at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center starting June 1.

Piwnica-Worms will serve as vice provost, science, overseeing preclinical and basic science research. She also will be a professor in MD Anderson's Department of Cancer Biology.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for me to have a greater impact on the cancer problem," Piwnica-Worms said. "I'm enthused about making new colleagues, starting new research and advancing MD Anderson's mission."

Piwnica-Worms is head of the Washington University School of Medicine Department of Cell Biology and Physiology as well as associate director for basic science and executive committee member at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University in St. Louis.

"MD Anderson president Ron DePinho has set some really terrific goals," she said. "It's very exciting to help build on the strengths that are already there and to integrate basic science discoveries into the Moon Shots Program. This also dovetails beautifully with my research."

MD Anderson in September launched its Moon Shots Program, an unprecedented effort to dramatically accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances to reduce cancer deaths, starting with eight cancers.

Innovative research, leadership success
"Helen's career has been marked by continual waves of innovation and translation. Her pioneering work in cell cycle checkpoints has been translated into new therapeutic opportunities for cancer patients," DePinho said.

"Her powerful blend of great science and effective translation, coupled with her strategic bandwidth, make her uniquely qualified to guide our laboratory sciences into an exciting era of vibrant discovery and clinical impact," he said.

During her 19 years at Washington University, Piwnica-Worms became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and assumed greater levels of leadership, playing an instrumental role in building the Molecular Oncology program and establishing the Siteman Cancer Center.

"Helen Piwnica-Worms is an exceptionally accomplished scientist who has a proven track record as an effective leader and visionary," MD Anderson Interim Provost Thomas Buchholz, M.D., said. "I'm confident she'll not only help guide our existing research efforts to even greater levels of excellence, but also integrate and optimize the many new scientific initiatives that promise to accelerate our efforts to end cancer."

Removing cell cycle brakes to speed cancer cells down road to self-destruction
"We're interested in how the cell cycle is regulated and how pathways called checkpoints integrate with that cycle to influence cell division arrest and DNA damage repair or force a damaged cell to die," she said. "We seek to understand how cancer cells deregulate those pathways so we can identify vulnerabilities to exploit."

Her team has particular interest in molecular pathways involved in triple-negative breast cancer, ovarian cancer and head and neck cancer.

Piwnica-Worms and colleagues identified the pathway that activates checkpoint kinase 1 (CHK1), an important protein in the second checkpoint involved in cell division.

Triple-negative breast cancer, difficult to treat because it lacks the three proteins hit by common targeted therapies, often has a p53 mutation that wipes out the first checkpoint. Piwnica-Worms and colleagues found that inhibiting CHK1, the key to the second checkpoint, causes cancer cells to self-destruct.

"We force cancer cells with DNA damage to move through the stop signs built into the cell cycle so they can undergo programmed cell death," she said. Combining DNA-damaging agents with checkpoint inhibition prevents DNA repair and triggers death signals.

"A brilliant, top-tier scientist and a wonderful person"
Piwnica-Worms' research contributions have been recognized widely. She was honored with the Spirit of Health Award for Cancer Research from the American Cancer Society, and in 2011 she was named an ACS Research Professor. She also is an established investigator of the American Heart Association, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

"I strongly believe that Helen is an outstanding addition to the leadership group at MD Anderson," said Frank McCormick, Ph.D., director of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the review process to select programs for the Moon Shots program.

"She is a brilliant, top-tier scientist and a wonderful person. Her impact will be substantial," said McCormick, who also is president of the American Association for Cancer Research.

She also collaborates with her spouse, David Piwnica-Worms, M.D., Ph.D., in molecular imaging research. He is coming to MD Anderson to lead the Department of Cancer System Imaging and as deputy division head, research, in the Division of Diagnostic Imaging. (See separate news release).

"For us, the important thing is who we work with, our colleagues and the community-and contributing to a mission we are passionate about-and we are most enthusiastic about our move because of that," she said.

Their children are "wonderful, happy, independent producers in our society."

Katie is a third-year medical student in Philadelphia. She acquired an interest in health policy issues during a year in the nation's capital and recently co-authored her first scholarly paper in that field, published last month in the journal Health Affairs.

Son William graduated from Duke University last May and then played his first season as an outfielder for the Washington Nationals' baseball team in Florida's Gulf Coast League. He is currently in spring training at the team's training camp in Viera, Fla.