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AACR-Bayer Innovation and Discovery Grants 

The AACR-Bayer Innovation and Discovery Grants represent a joint effort to promote the key tenets of the Bayer Grants4Targets™ Initiative, providing new treatment options for cancers with high unmet medical need, encouraging innovation and translation of ideas from basic research into novel drugs, and fostering collaborations between academic groups and the pharmaceutical industry. Successful applications must focus on the following oncology research areas: inhibition of cell proliferation, survival signaling, transcription and chromatin modulation, cell cycle regulation, tumor metabolism, hypoxia, immunotherapy, antibody-drug conjugates.  

2018 Grantees

Audet-Walsh_EtienneEtienne Audet-Walsh, PhD
Assistant Professor
Université Laval
Québec City, Canada
spacer_1lineTargeting the estrogen signaling pathway to treat prostate cancer

Scientific Statement of Research
Prostate cancer (PCa) is the most common cancer in men and relies on the androgen receptor for tumor growth. From epidemiological, toxicological, and genetically engineered mouse model studies, it is clear that both estrogen receptors ERa and ERß also act as key modulators of PCa progression. However, these were mostly descriptive studies, and the specific biological functions of ERs in PCa are still mostly unknown. Our objective is to understand the role of these receptors in PCa by using pharmacological and functional genomic approaches. Clinicians have been using hormone receptor expression for decades to guide treatment for breast cancer. Given that estrogen-targeted therapies are available in the clinic and are well tolerated, identifying PCa subtypes that depend on ERs would allow us to efficiently repurpose such therapies for PCa. The current project thus has the potential to lead to rapid changes in the clinical landscape of PCa treatment.

Biography
During his PhD, Dr. Audet-Walsh studied the relationship between steroid hormones and hormone-dependent cancer progression. He did a postdoc at McGill University, where he demonstrated the coordinated actions of steroid hormone receptors and various signaling pathways in the control of cancer cell metabolism. In 2017, he was recruited as a principal investigator at Université Laval, where his research program aims to identify new therapeutic approaches for the management of prostate cancer. His expertise in molecular endocrinology led him to study the functions of estrogen receptors in prostate cancer and how they interfere with the androgen receptor, which is a major driver of prostate cancer.

Acknowledgment of Support
As a young investigator, the AACR-Bayer Innovation and Discovery Grant is one of the first grants I have received to start my research program, and I am sincerely grateful. This exceptional support is key to the success of health research in North America and worldwide.

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Bakst_RichardRichard L. Bakst, MD
Associate Professor
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
New York, New York
spacer_1lineTargeting monocyte recruitment and macrophage function for perineural invasion

Scientific Statement of Research
Cancer can spread or metastasize through a variety of mechanisms. Certain cancers specifically invade and disseminate along local nerves, termed perineural invasion (PNI). Despite the widespread acknowledgement of its significance, there are currently there are no targeted therapies for PNI. The current inability to interrupt this aggressive cancer phenotype represents a highly unmet clinical need. We previously demonstrated that the immune system plays a significant role in promoting nerve invasion by cancer. In response to cancer, the nerve secretes a molecule that recruits circulating monocytes, which arrive at the nerve and promote nerve invasion through the production of a specific enzyme that disrupts protective layers surrounding nerves. We aim to target this conserved innate immune response rather than specific cancer properties to impair nerve invasion. This approach has the potential to generate novel treatment strategies to impact a broad range of solid tumors that display PNI.

Biography
Dr. Bakst is an associate professor of radiation oncology and otolaryngology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Dr. Bakst earned his MD from New York University School of Medicine in 2007, where he graduated with honors. He completed his residency in radiation oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 2012, where he served as chief resident. His research focuses on elucidating the mechanisms by which cancer invades and disseminates along nerves.

Acknowledgement of Support
I am honored to have been selected as a recipient of the AACR-Bayer Innovation and Discovery Grant. Through this support, I aim to translate our mechanistic findings into novel treatment strategies to inhibit this aggressive cancer phenotype.

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Brainson_ChristineChristine Fillmore Brainson, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky
spacer_1lineSynergy of copanlisib with epigenetic inhibitor in PIK3CA-driven NSCLCs

Scientific Statement of Research
Precision medicine for lung cancer is poised to revolutionize treatment of this deadly disease. PIK3CA, the gene that encodes P110a, the catalytic subunit of the intracellular signaling kinase termed PI3K, is activated in 50 percent of squamous lung cancers by both mutation and genomic amplification. Many PI3K inhibitors have been developed, but these drugs have failed to be efficacious at targeting PIK3CA-driven lung cancers in clinical trials. Our preliminary data suggest that responses to PI3K inhibitors, such as the FDA-approved copanlisib, are greatly increased by addition of a drug targeting the epigenetic enzyme EZH2. The goals of this proposal are to establish a mouse model in which to test this promising drug combination and to determine the mechanism of EZH2 inhibitor and PI3K inhibitor synergy. If successful, this research could result in a new precision medicine opportunity that would be beneficial for a large number of lung cancer patients.

Biography
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Dr. Brainson has always wanted a career in cancer research. She joined the faculty of the University of Kentucky in the Toxicology and Cancer Biology department in October of 2016. She trained at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute with Dr. Charles Roberts and at Tufts University with Dr. Charlotte Kuperwasser. She was a postdoctoral fellow at Boston Children's Hospital, where she worked with Dr. Carla Kim and Dr. Kwok Wong. The Brainson Lab focuses on defining precision medicine opportunities for lung cancer by leveraging ideas and techniques from stem cell biology and epigenetics. 

Acknowledgement of Support
I am thrilled to accept the AACR-Bayer Innovation and Discovery Award. It will allow my lab to develop a PI3K-driven mouse model of lung cancer in which to test a promising drug combination. We are hopeful that our research will positively impact the large number of patients with PI3K-driven tumors.

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Ghosh_GourisankarGourisankar Ghosh, PhD
Professor
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, California
spacer_1lineStructural studies of IKK2 bound to an allosteric inhibitor

Scientific Statement of Research
Professor Ghosh has been working on the mechanism of activation of the Nuclear Factor kappaB (NF-kB) family of dimeric transcription factors. These factors mostly remain dormant in cells but are activated in response to environmental challenges, including pathogens. NF-kB primarily regulates the expression of inflammatory and survival genes. Untimely activation of NF-kB can have a detrimental effect, facilitating inflammatory disorders and cancer on account of immune cell activation and prevention of cell death. The central regulators of NF-kB are an inhibitory protein, IkB, and a kinase known as IkappaB kinase. Uncontrolled activation of IKK leads to NF-kB activation through continuous degradation of IkB, which releases NF-kB free to engage in transcriptional regulation. The Ghosh laboratory focuses on all three regulatory checkpoints: activity of IKK, NF-kB inhibition by IkB, and transcriptional activity of NF-kB. They are now trying to develop a new class of inhibitors to block premature activation of IKK.

Biography
Professor Ghosh was born in a remote village in the state of West Bengal in India and completed his high school in a neighboring village. After receiving his BSc and MSc degrees from Calcutta University, he moved to Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, for his PhD in biochemistry. He received training as a structural biochemist at Yale University. In 1995, he joined the University of California, San Diego as an assistant professor. He has been working in two different areas, one relating to the transcription factor NF-kappaB and the other relating to pre-messenger RNA splicing.

Acknowledgement of Support
The AARC-Bayer Innovation and Discovery Grant will help our laboratory to refocus our research from purely basic to translational. The funds will allow us to perform new experiments directly relevant to cancer and through interactions and collaborations with scientists fully engaged in cancer research. 

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Mitchell_MichaelMichael Mitchell, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
spacer_1lineHigh-throughput in vivo discovery of microRNA leukemia therapeutics

Scientific Statement of Research
Despite dramatic improvements in survival using current therapies, relapse is the most frequent cause of cancer-related death among children with B-cell precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia (BCP-ALL). This is due, in part, to disease progression, drug resistance, and a lack of targeted drug delivery systems. MicroRNAs play a critical role in the initiation, progression, and drug resistance of ALL, and microRNA-based therapies can potentially overcome ALL drug resistance by reducing the expression of oncogenes. However, microRNA therapies have been hampered by a lack of efficacious nucleic acid delivery systems. As a novel paradigm for ALL therapy, we propose a nanotechnology platform that delivers microRNA therapeutics, reduces systemic toxicity, and overcomes ALL resistance to clinical therapeutics. The proposed studies have the potential to improve public health and patient outcomes through new therapeutics that alleviate suffering, replace less efficacious options, and reduce the overall treatment cost of ALL and potentially other hematologic malignancies.

Biography
Dr. Mitchell is the Skirkanich assistant professor of innovation in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Abramson Cancer Center at the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn. His lab designs novel biomaterials and drug delivery systems with applications in cancer therapy, immunoengineering, and gene editing. He received a BE from Stevens Institute of Technology in 2009 and a PhD from Cornell University in 2014, both in biomedical engineering. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT from 2014 to 2017. He was named an AACR Scholar in Cancer Research in 2016 and is the recipient of an NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface, and the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.

Acknowledgement of Support
Our lab currently develops novel polymer and lipid nanoparticles to deliver gene therapeutics in vivo to multiple myeloma. Generous support from the AACR-Bayer grant will enable our lab to broaden the use of our gene delivery platform technology to develop next generation therapeutics for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

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Morey_LluisLluis Morey, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Miami
Miami, Florida
spacer_1lineRING1B, a new potential therapeutic target for breast cancer

Scientific Statement of Research
In the US, about one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Breast cancer can be classified by the presence or absence of hormone receptor expression. In triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), cells do not express hormone receptors and do not respond to hormone therapies. Thus, patients with TNBC have very limited therapeutic options, resulting in a higher risk of metastasis and poor outcome. Dr. Morey will address a new potential targeted therapy approach for TNBC. Inhibition of the bromodomain protein BRD4 has efficacy in TNBC cells. Dr. Morey discovered that RING1B functionally cooperates with BRD4 in maintaining expression of oncogenes in TNBC. He proposes to determine the efficacy of a RING1B inhibitor in TNBC cell growth, viability, and metastatic potential using an array of TNBC cells. He aims to discover novel therapeutic approaches for treatment of TNBC by modulating BRD4 and RING1B activities.

Biography
Dr. Morey received his BS degree in biology from the Universitat de Barcelona in 2003. He received his PhD in molecular biology from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain) under the supervision of Dr. Di Croce at the Center for Genomic Regulation in 2008. He was a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Helin at BRIC (Denmark) until 2010. He then joined the laboratory of Dr. Luciano Di Croce as a staff scientist until 2015. Dr. Morey was recruited to the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center as an assistant professor and joined the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Miami in 2015.

Acknowledgement of Support
It is an honor to be considered worthy of receiving support from the AACR, and I am very grateful to be one of the awardees of the 2018 AACR-Bayer Innovation and Discovery Grant. With the support of the AACR, my laboratory will be able to contribute to a cure for TNBC.

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Opyrchal_MateuszMateusz Opyrchal, MD, PhD
Assistant Professor
Health Research Incorporated, Roswell Park Cancer Institute Division
Buffalo, New York
spacer_1lineRole of Piezo2 mechanosensitive channel in breast cancer

Scientific Statement of Research
The goal of the proposal is to determine the importance and function of the Piezo2 channel in breast cancer. There is direct and indirect data suggesting that mechanical forces play a role in breast cancer behavior and Piezo2 may be the way cancer cells detect outside pressures. We will use available genomic databases to examine the correlations between Piezo2 expression and activation of signaling pathways associated with proliferation, resistance, and metastasis in breast cancer. Next, we will explore the function of Piezo2 in breast cancer models. Data generated through this project will serve as basis for further investigation of Piezo2 as a novel target in breast cancer.

Biography
Dr. Opyrchal was born in Poland and with his family emigrated to the United States in 1991. He went to college at Rutgers University and then entered a combined MD/PhD program at Rutgers Medical School. His PhD work focused on how viruses interact with the mRNA regulating machinery in human cells, which they coopt to enhance replication. Dr. Opyrchal went on to the Mayo Clinic for a physician-scientist tract residency/fellowship in oncology. There he gained experience in oncolytic virus therapy and worked on enhancing the anti-tumor activity of measles virus. His work on breast cancer stem cell-like cells also allowed him to train in molecular biology and small molecule pre-clinical testing. In 2013 he joined the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Since then he has been actively involved in designing and running clinical trials as part of the Early Phase Clinical Trial Program. He has also maintained a basic research program focused on discovering novel mechanisms for breast cancer metastasis and resistance.

Acknowledgement of Support
The support from the AACR-Bayer Innovation and Discovery Grant will be instrumental in launching the project of looking at the role of mechano-signaling in the propagation and metastasis of breast cancer. The funds will certainly help, but more importantly, having outside reviewers acknowledge that the idea is interesting gives me the added enthusiasm to push through with the project.

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Singh_AnuragAnurag Singh, PhD
Assistant Professor
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts
spacer_1lineCo-targeting PAK kinase and Bcl family proteins in NRAS dependent melanoma

Scientific Statement of Research
Despite advances in targeted and immune therapies for melanoma treatment, many patients face poor clinical prognoses. NRAS is mutated in 20 percent of melanomas and is an upstream activator of the RAF/MEK/ERK, PI3K/AKT, and RAC1/PAK kinase signaling pathways, which cooperate to drive melanomagenesis. Preliminary data indicates that NRAS-mutant melanoma cell lines can be classified into NRAS-dependent and NRAS-independent subtypes. This dichotomy was exploited to reveal an NRAS dependency transcriptional signature that is enriched with kinase genes, including MAP3K7/TAK1 and PAK3. A combinatorial compound screen showed that PAK kinase inhibition in combination with Bcl2/Bcl-XL inhibition causes synergistic cell death of NRAS-dependent melanoma cells. Aim 1 of this research proposal will be to validate the therapeutic efficacy of combined PAK kinase and Bcl-2/Bcl-XL inhibition in xenografted NRAS-dependent melanomas in immunodeficient mice. Aim 2 is to define PAK isoform-specific functions in NRAS-dependent melanoma cells by CRISPR-cas9 genetic ablation of PAK isoforms 1-6.

Biography
Dr. Singh received his PhD in pharmacology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School focused on deeper mechanistic understanding of oncogenic KRAS signaling. He performed seminal work on the derivation of lineage-specific transcriptional signatures of mutant KRAS dependency. Dr. Singh is currently an assistant professor in the Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Department at Boston University School of Medicine. His current research is focused on understanding drug resistance mechanisms in KRAS and NRAS mutant cancers, including melanoma.

Acknowledgement of Support
I am honored to receive an AACR-Bayer Innovation and Discovery Grant. This funding gives me the capability to test and develop a new combinatorial therapeutic strategy for melanoma treatment. The grant will put me in a good position to receive federal funding for the project and enhance my career development.

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Su_LeLe Su, PhD
Independent Junior Fellow
HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology
Huntsville, Alabama
spacer_1lineNew strategy to treat mutant p53-expressing cancers

Scientific Statement of Research
Over half of cancer patients carry p53 mutations, which can change the p53 tumor suppressor into a malignant driver. This gain-of-function (GOF) activity mostly relies on mutant p53 interaction with other proteins. An increased understanding of the factors that bind GOF p53 mutants would facilitate identification of the key pathways by which mutant p53 exerts its oncogenic effects. Dr. Su provides exciting evidence for the existence of a novel mutant p53 complex that activates the c-Met oncogene in human sarcoma cells. He will continue research to screen a broad panel of cancer cell lines for the presence of mutant p53/c-Met signaling and investigate the effectiveness of c-Met inhibition. The goal of this research project is to provide mechanistic guidelines for using clinically applicable c-Met inhibitors as a therapeutic option for cancers that express p53 mutants.

Biography
Dr. Su is a junior fellow at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama. Before taking up this appointment, he completed his PhD at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Dr. Su’s research has been focused on understanding chromosomal translocation-associated tumorigenesis and on translating mechanistic knowledge into targeted therapeutics.

Acknowledgement of Support
This grant gives me, an early-career investigator, the great courage to chase “high-risk, high-reward” ideas for scientific innovation that aim to revolutionize the way we treat cancer.

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Yang_LiuqingLiuqing Yang, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Houston, Texas
spacer_1lineTargeting long noncoding RNAs renovates liver cancer immunotherapy

Scientific Statement of Research
The immune system oversees the surveillance and elimination of malignant transformations. Nascent malignant cells have developed diverse mechanisms for reducing antigenicity and evading detection. The majority of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) patients respond poorly to immune checkpoint blockers (ICBs), and the molecular mechanism of associated antigenicity loss currently lacks characterization. Long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) are key players in regulating cancer characteristics and are aberrantly expressed in a broad spectrum of cancers. The proposed research therefore approaches HCC antigenicity loss from a lncRNA-centric perspective. This project will determine the prognostic value of lncRNAs in assessing liver cancer risk, outcome, and immunotherapy response. It will then identify the therapeutic potential of targeting lncRNAs using locked-nucleic acids (LNAs) to sensitize HCC patients to immunotherapy and ICB treatment. These results will provide innovative therapeutic strategies for utilizing lncRNAs as prognostic HCC biomarkers and stimulate the advancement of lncRNA-based combinatorial therapies for cancer patients.

Biography
Dr. Yang is an assistant professor of molecular and cellular oncology. Prior to joining MD Anderson in 2013, he was an Era of Hope postdoctoral fellow at the UC San Diego. He graduated with a BS in molecular biology from Xinjiang University in Urumqi, China, in 1998 and eight years later earned a PhD in the same field from Georgia State University in Atlanta. Since 2013, his research has primarily focused on the role of long non-coding RNAs in cancerous tumor production and long-distance metastasis, which has contributed significantly to the understanding of colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers.

Acknowledgement of Support
This is a transformative award. I am excited by the flexibility this funding provides my lab to aggressively chase down the most exciting and impactful questions in cancer research. Looking forward, I see it as my responsibility to make a good return on this new investment for our cancer patients.

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2017 Grantees

Andrew C. DudleyAndrew C. Dudley, PhD 
Associate Professor
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia
Targeting dysfunctional tumor blood vessels with vascular-tropic miR-30c mimics to prevent the growth of metastatic seeds

Even in microscopic tumors, tumor-associated blood vessels are dysfunctional and leaky which allows fibrinogen and other plasma proteins to accumulate in a perivascular niche. Extravascular fibrin creates scaffolds for invasive cancer cells and it forms a lattice for new blood vessels to sprout. Our lab has recently uncovered a vascular-directed and drug-accessible pathway that controls the rate of fibrin degradation and tumor progression. We show that enhancing endothelial cell expression of miR-30c using vascular-tropic nanoparticles diminishes expression of the serpine1 gene (serpine1 encodes for PAI-1 which is the major "break" on fibrinolysis). We also find that targeting this pathway is sufficient to promote rapid vascular-driven fibrinolysis which inhibits tumor growth in an orthotopic mammary tumor model. For this project, we seek to extend these studies to a model of experimental metastasis. Because extravascular fibrin may be a "spark" that supports the growth of disseminated cancer cells, we propose that promoting rapid fibrin degradation using vascular-tropic miR-30c conjugates will inhibit metastatic outgrowth.

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Geou-Yarh Liou, PhD
Assistant Professor
Clark Atlanta University
Atlanta, Georgia
Targeting inflammatory cytokine signaling during initiation and development of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is the most disastrous type of cancer with an extremely low 5-year survival rate, which has remained unchanged over 4 decades and is projected to become 2nd leading death among all cancer-related fatalities. The greatest challenge of bringing down the death toll of pancreatic cancer patients is to detect and intervene this disease at its early stage. The Liou laboratory identified oncogenic Kras-upregulated inflammatory cytokines during PDAC initiation and progression. This proposal will reveal the mechanism of how the identified cytokines modulate the processes of initiation and development of PDAC using 3D organoid cultures and relevant animal models. Results from this project will provide insight into the potential use of targeting the cytokines in the clinic not only as a preventive measure for the high-risk populations for pancreatic cancer (e.g. hereditary pancreatitis), but also for intervening tumor progression in patients who have early stage pancreatic cancer. By preventing from getting pancreatic cancer or restraining cancer cells in the pancreas will significantly improve the death numbers of pancreatic cancer.

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