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Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-AACR Career Development Awards

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-AACR Career Development Awards represent a joint effort to encourage and support junior faculty, who have completed their most recent doctoral degree or medical residency within the past 11 years, to conduct pancreatic cancer research and establish successful career paths in this field. The research proposed for funding may be basic, translational, clinical, or epidemiological in nature and must have direct applicability and relevance to pancreatic cancer.

2017 Grantees

Doles_90x110.jpgJason Doles, PhD
Senior Associate Consultant
Mayo Clinic
Rochester, Minnesota
Metabolic alterations driving PDAC-associated muscle wasting

Scientific Statement of Research
Cachexia is a devastating muscle and fat wasting syndrome that affects many individuals with chronic disease, especially cancer. Pancreatic cancer patients are particularly at risk, with up to 70-80 percent exhibiting significant muscle wasting. This is a troubling statistic given the tight correlation between muscle wasting and patient outcomes, including mortality, morbidity, response to chemotherapy, and surgical prognosis. Despite decades of extensive pre-clinical/clinical research, therapeutic options for cachexia are limited. Dr. Doles’ team aims to understand how muscle repair and regeneration are impaired in pancreatic cancer-associated cachexia. This proposal focuses on metabolic regulation of skeletal muscle stem cells (satellite cells), and will dissect how pancreatic cancer-associated secreted factors disrupt satellite cell metabolism and muscle regeneration. Successful completion of these studies will pave the way for future work investigating metabolic interventions capable of stimulating satellite cell expansion, thus boosting the endogenous regenerative capacity of skeletal muscle in pancreatic cancer patients.

Dr. Doles earned an AB in political science and biology (2003) from Brown University. He received his PhD (2010) from MIT where he studied mechanisms of chemotherapeutic resistance with Dr. Michael Hemann. As a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Doles transitioned to adult stem cell research in murine skin with Dr. Bill Keyes (CRG Barcelona), and in murine skeletal muscle with Dr. Bradley Olwin (CU-Boulder). He joined the Mayo Clinic Rochester as an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in 2016 where his lab studies adult stem cell dysfunction in skeletal muscle wasting disorders.

Acknowledgement of Support
My primary expertise is adult skeletal muscle stem cell regulation. As a relatively new independent investigator, this 2017 PCAN-AACR Career Development Award will facilitate my transition to independence and  help focus my muscle wasting program on pancreatic cancer, where improvements in muscle mass/function would greatly improve patient outcomes.

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Haoqiang Ying, MD, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Houston, Texas
The regulation of oncogene addiction by YAP pathway in pancreatic cancer

Scientific Statement of Research
Despite the essential role of oncogenic KRAS in driving pancreatic tumorigenesis, a subgroup of tumors evolves to rely less on KRAS oncogene for survival, which contributes to the highly heterogeneous nature and poor prognosis of pancreatic cancer. However, the molecular determinants for KRAS-independency that may serve as context-specific vulnerabilities are still ill-defined. By using an inducible mouse pancreatic cancer model, Dr. Haoqiang Ying has recently demonstrated that a subset of advanced tumors will eventually grow independent of KRAS oncogene, and these tumors are highly reminiscent of those human pancreatic tumors that are relatively resistant to KRAS inhibition and exhibit the worst prognosis. For the proposed project, Dr. Ying and his research team aim to elucidate the molecular mechanisms that lead to the bypass of KRAS-dependency in advanced tumors. The long-term goal is to develop effective targeted approaches and achieve sustainable therapeutic responses for pancreatic cancer.

Dr. Ying obtained his MD degree from Peking Union Medical College, China in 2000 and received the PhD degree in biochemistry from Boston University School of Medicine in 2006. He then worked as postdoctoral fellow at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where he used genetically engineered mouse models to study the dependence on KRAS oncogene in advanced pancreatic cancers and the role of KRAS-driven metabolism reprogramming in tumor maintenance. Dr. Ying joined MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2014 as an assistant professor. His research program is focused on understanding context-specific regulation of KRAS-dependency and its related metabolism programs in pancreatic cancer.

Acknowledgement of Support
The Career Development Award will not only provide funding support essential for the proposed research project, it will also foster critical scientific collaborations through interactions with peers and experts in the PanCAN community.

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Ingunn M. Stromnes, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Enhancing the efficacy of engieneered T cell therapy for pancreatic cancer

Scientific Statement of Research
Pancreatic cancer is highly resistant to therapies, including immunotherapy. Dr. Stromnes has developed a new cellular immunotherapy that genetically reprograms T cells to express a tumor-reactive receptor, thereby, enabling T cells to recognize and kill pancreatic tumor cells. Over time, however, the engineered T cells become dysfunctional only within the suppressive pancreatic tumor microenvironment thereby limiting efficacy. Dr. Stromnes’s project entails studying the role the tumor microenvironment plays in inducing engineered T cell dysfunction to devise new immunotherapeutic strategies to target this disease.

Dr. Stromnes will test the hypothesis that a greater understanding of the molecular and metabolic features of engineered T cell subsets infiltrating PDA will inform new ways to manipulate T cells for greater therapeutic benefit. Dr. Stromnes and her research team will test the hypothesis that modulating non-redundant signaling pathways in T cells can safely increase anti-tumor efficacy in preclinical animal models. Promising strategies will then be evaluated in combination with modulating suppressive cells in the tumor microenvironment and further developed for clinical testing. The proposed studies are designed to identify translatable strategies to enhance the efficacy of cellular immunotherapies for pancreatic cancer patient treatment.

Dr. Ingunn Stromnes obtained predoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health, followed by a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington. As a postdoctoral scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, she developed a novel and promising immunotherapy by genetically engineering T cells to infiltrate and attack pancreatic cancer without the toxic side effects of chemotherapy. Dr. Stromnes is now a faculty member at the University of Minnesota where she and her lab will continue to push the boundaries of cellular engineering to create safe and effective immunotherapies for pancreatic cancer patients.

Acknowledgement of Support
It is a distinct honor to be selected for the 2017 Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-AACR Career Development Award. I believe there is reason to be optimistic that immunotherapies can successfully be designed to safely and effectively eradicate pancreatic cancer in patients, and this award exemplifies a similar confidence from the pancreatic cancer research community. I am truly grateful to the Pancreatic Cancer Action-Network and the AACR for their support and am honored to represent them during our pursuit of designing effective immunotherapies for pancreatic cancer patients.

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2016 Grantees

Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-AACR Career Development Award, funded by an anonymous foundation

Amber Simpson, PhD 
Assistant Attending Computational Biologist
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
New York, New York
CT texture analysis: A radiomics approach to predicting malignancy in IPMN

Incidental pancreatic cysts are being identified at an increasing rate due to the widespread use of abdominal cross-sectional imaging. Current laboratory, endoscopic, cytologic, and imaging technologies are limited in their ability to distinguish between intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms (IPMN) at low- or high-risk of becoming an invasive cancer. The yield from resecting branch duct IPMN is low, with about 18 percent demonstrating malignancy on pathology report. Thus, a significant proportion of these patients will undergo unnecessary surgery for benign precursor lesions. The goal of this interdisciplinary research is to develop quantitative imaging markers that define malignancy. Dr. Simpson’s hypothesis is that CT-based quantitative imaging features can better predict malignancy in IPMN than visual assessment by radiologists and can achieve comparable discriminatory power as state-of-the-art fluid markers, thus providing non-invasive disease surveillance. Dr. Simpson was the first to apply quantitative imaging techniques in the pancreas, identifying markers predictive of survival in patients with pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

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Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-AACR Career Development Award, funded by an anonymous foundation

Shuibing Chen, PhD 
Assistant Professor
Weill Cornell Medical College
New York, New York
Targeting chemoresistant stem cells in pancreatic cancer

Chemoresistance is a primary cause of treatment failure in pancreatic cancer. Identifying cell surface markers specifically expressed in chemoresistant cancer cells (CCCs) could facilitate targeted therapies to overcome chemoresistance. From an antibody-based screen, TRA-1-60 and TRA-1-81, two “stemness” cell surface markers, were identified to be highly enriched in chemoresistant cancer cells. Moreover, TRA-1-60+/TRA-1-81+ cells are chemoresistant compared to TRA-1-60-/TRA-1-81- cells. Furthermore, a high content chemical screen of a library of 2000 FDA-approved and international drugs identified a lead hit that specifically eliminates the TRA-1-60+/TRA-1-81+ cells and increases the sensitivity of pancreatic cancer cells to chemotherapy. The aims of the proposal are 1) Define the molecular basis for chemoresistance of the TRA-1-60+/TRA-1-81+ cells; and 2) Validate the hit compounds using primary tumor samples. The proposed studies will significantly improve our knowledge of chemoresistance and repurpose an antiarrhythmic reagent for combinational therapy of otherwise intractable cancers.

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Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-AACR Career Development Award, in memory of Skip Viragh

Rushika M. Perera, PhD 
Assistant Professor
University of California, San Francisco
San Francisco, California
Targeting nutrient scavenging pathways that fuel pancreatic cancer growth

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma (PDA) is a highly aggressive malignancy that thrives in nutrient poor, hypoxic environments. Recent evidence suggests that this remarkable resilience to nutrient limitation is overcome through constitutive activation of nutrient scavenging pathways namely autophagy (cellular self-catabolism) and macropinocytosis (bulk uptake of extracellular material). Importantly, both of these pathways converge on the lysosome, an acidic organelle that harbors within its lumen a complex series of enzymatic reactions that enable degradation of incoming cargo material. Dr. Perera’s recent work has shown that the lysosome is greatly expanded and qualitatively different in PDA cells compared to normal tissue. Moreover, she identified the MiT/TFE transcription factors (TFE3, MITF, and TFEB) as master regulators of autophagy-lysosome activation in PDA where they orchestrate transcriptional control of the biogenesis and function of the autophagosome-lysosome system. Furthermore, Dr. Perera determined that autophagy-lysosomal activation is specifically required to maintain intracellular amino acid (AA) pools. Thus, contrary to the long held view that the lysosome is a metabolic "dead end," devoid of any regulation or fine-tuning Dr. Perera proposes that lysosomes function as major integrators of extracellular and intracellular information and are important mediators of global rewiring of cellular state. Building on these findings, Dr. Perera and her team will test the hypothesis that the lysosome actively remodels PDA metabolism to enable adaptation to a variety of stress conditions. By developing and systematically applying novel proteomics and metabolomics approaches, the proposed studies aim to uncover dynamic changes in lysosome composition during tumor evolution and following exposure to cellular stress, particularly in the form of nutrient starvation and treatment with anti-cancer agents. Through a comprehensive analysis of lysosome function in PDA, Dr. Perera’s goal is to identify key targets for development of novel lysosome-based inhibitors.

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Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-AACR Career Development Award, supported by Laurie MacCaskill

Kian-Huat Lim, MD, PhD 
Assistant Professor
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri
Deactivating the innate immune defense mechanism of pancreatic cancer

Extreme resistance to anticancer agents and radiation underlies the dismal prognosis of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). Mechanisms that contribute to such malignant feat of PDAC include strong intrinsic survival signaling events including expression of KRas oncoprotein and upregulation of the NF-kB pathway, as well as an intensely inflamed extrinsic tumor microenvironment which limits the delivery of anticancer agents. Dr. Lim’s team recently found that PDAC cells commonly upregulate their intrinsic innate immune defense mechanism through activating the Interleukin-1 Receptor Associated Kinase 4 (IRAK4). Notably, presence of activated IRAK4 in resected PDAC tumors is significantly associated with poor prognosis, indicating IRAK4 as a regulator that drives the aggressive behavior of PDAC. His team went on to show that therapeutic targeting of IRAK4 significantly reduces the NF-kB activity, cripples the in vivo tumorigenic ability of various PDAC lines, augments the effect of chemotherapeutics and reduce stromal formation in xenograft models.

Dr. Lim’s team will now go on to investigate the mechanism that leads to activation of IRAK4 by focusing on the contribution of the closely associated Toll-like receptors. Using the state-of-the-art genetically-engineered mouse model, the KPC mice, Dr. Lim’s team will further dissect the role of IRAK4 in stromal and immune cells, which will have important clinical implication in the future. Finally, Dr. Lim’s team will test the preclinical efficacy of a newly developed IRAK4 inhibitor as single agent and in combination with chemotherapeutics in mouse models. 

In summary, Dr. Lim’s team believes that deactivating the innate immune defense mechanism of PDAC cells represents a promising therapeutic strategy that could improve patient outcome.

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Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-AACR Career Development Award, supported by The Daniel and Janet Mordecai Foundation

Christopher Vakoc, MD, PhD 
Associate Professor
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Cold Spring Harbor, New York
Enhancer reprogramming as a driver of pancreatic cancer progression

An emerging body of evidence has linked deregulation of enhancers to the pathogenesis of human cancer. In this proposal, the Vakoc laboratory will perform mechanistic research that tests the hypothesis that enhancer deregulation by transcription factors promotes metastasis in late-stage pancreatic cancer. This proposal is based on preliminary evidence that identifies massive aberrations of enhancer activity in organoid cultures derived from distal metastases relative to primary pancreatic tumors. A key hypothesis underlying the proposed research is that aberrant enhancer activation is a major reason why pancreatic cancer cells gain the ability to metastasize to distant organs, such as the liver. To test this idea, enhancers will be genetically modified in pancreatic cancer cells to examine how this alters the behavior of the disease. In addition, experiments will investigate how transcription factors bind to enhancers to turn nearby genes ON or OFF. It is anticipated that targeting transcription factors might allow restoration of enhancer configurations back to their normal state, and an attenuation of metastatic potential of cancer cells.

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