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James R. Downing, MD, to Receive the Inaugural AACR-St. Baldrick’s Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement in Pediatric Cancer Research

PHILADELPHIA – The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) will present the first-ever AACR-St. Baldrick’s Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement in Pediatric Cancer Research to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Chief Executive Officer James R. Downing, MD. Downing is also the director of the Molecular Pathology Laboratory at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and holds the Donald Pinkel Chair of Childhood Cancer Treatment.

Downing is one of the most esteemed pediatric cancer researchers in the world. With this award, he is being recognized for his revolutionary research efforts dedicated to characterizing the genomics of pediatric cancer to inform the development of better treatments for children afflicted with cancer and for contributing to the creation and implementation of the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project, which has led to a number of landmark discoveries in the biology of brain tumors, leukemia, cancer of the peripheral nervous system, and tumors of the eye.

The AACR-St. Baldrick’s Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement in Pediatric Cancer Research was established in 2019 to recognize major research discoveries in pediatric cancer research and to honor an individual who has significantly contributed to any area of pediatric cancer research, resulting in the fundamental improvement of the understanding and/or treatment of pediatric cancer. Uniquely, the award recipient is also afforded the opportunity to nominate junior faculty at the assistant professor level or equivalent, who are affiliated with an academic institution involved in cancer research, cancer medicine, or cancer-related sciences, to be considered to receive a one-year, $75,000 AACR-St. Baldrick’s Foundation Pediatric Cancer Research Fellowship.

“Dr. Downing is an icon in the field of pediatric cancer research,” said Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), chief executive officer of the AACR. “His outstanding research accomplishments have significantly advanced our understanding of the genomic underpinnings of pediatric cancer development, accelerating the pace of progress in diagnosing and treating children with cancer. The AACR isdelighted that it is now working with St. Baldrick’s as the work of this Foundation continues to be highly contributory to progress against pediatric cancer. We are very happy that Dr. Downing has been chosen by the award selection committee as the inaugural recipient of this prestigious new award created through our valued partnership with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.”

Downing’s group published one of the earliest gene expression studies classifying pediatric cancer and demonstrating that subsets of acute lymphoblastic leukemia can be defined by unique gene expression profiles. These findings drove the formation of what is arguably his most seminal and far-reaching work with profound implications for pediatric cancer patients, the St. Jude-Washington University Pediatric Cancer Genome Project. This groundbreaking effort has led to the genomic sequencing of nearly 2,000 pediatric cancer patients, resulting in the identification of numerous genetic driver mutations not previously linked to cancer onset and progression.

“Pediatric cancers differ significantly from adult cancers, and it’s crucial that we fund research specific to the needs of children,” said Kathleen Ruddy, chief executive officer of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. “Dr. Downing’s research in genome sequencing and more in pediatric cancer has been groundbreaking. The St. Baldrick’s Foundation is proud to partner with AACR to award Dr. Downing the first-ever AACR-St. Baldrick’s Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement in Pediatric Cancer Research.”

While best known for his pioneering large-scale pediatric cancer genome sequencing work, Downing’s early research focused on the functional characterization of chromosomal translocations that drive leukemogenesis, including the AML1/RUNX1 gene. He demonstrated that AML1, a DNA binding transcription factor, is critical for early hematopoietic development. He was also among the first to develop a conditional mouse model of AML1-rearranged acute myeloid leukemia (AML), models of which continue to be used for many global pediatric cancer research projects.

Downing has been a member of the AACR since 2000 and currently serves as a member of the AACR’s Pediatric Cancer Working Group. In 2009, he and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) Team received the AACR Team Science Award “for markedly improving the cure rates of children with ALL, while making a series of seminal laboratory discoveries that unravel mechanisms of leukemogenesis and drug resistance and identify novel therapeutic targets.” He has served as cochair of the AACR Annual Meeting Program Committee (2012-2013); a member of the Stand Up To Cancer-AACR Innovative Research Grants Scientific Review Committee (2011); a member of the AACR Pediatric Oncology Task Force (2009-2010); and a scientific editor for the AACR journal Cancer Discovery (2011-2014). In 2013, Downing also served as a cochair for the AACR’s first Special Conference dedicated to pediatric cancer, titled  “Pediatric Cancer at the Crossroads: Translating Discovery into Improved Outcomes.”

Downing has received many scientific awards and honors. He was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2016) and to the National Academy of Medicine (2013). He was appointed to the Blue Ribbon Panel for then-Vice President Joe Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot Initiative in 2016. He received the Pediatric Oncology Award and Lectureship from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (2019); the E. Donnall Thomas Lecture and Prize from the American Society of Hematology (2017); the Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Prize in Pediatric Oncology (2017); the Association for Molecular Pathology Award for Excellence (2012); the Philip Levine Award for Outstanding Research from the American Society of Clinical Pathology (2005); and the Young Investigator Award from the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology (1996). Downing earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Michigan.

This award program represents the first time that an AACR scientific achievement award has been linked to a research grant opportunity. The goal of the AACR-St. Baldrick’s Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement in Pediatric Cancer Research initiative is to spotlight significant scientific accomplishments, while simultaneously fostering the career advancement of early-stage pediatric cancer researchers. It is intended to stimulate an ongoing mentor-mentee relationship between the awardees and the grant recipients, and will serve to further underscore AACR’s and St. Baldrick’s Foundation’s stalwart commitment to the conquest of pediatric cancer.