Home  /  News  /  Grants and Awards  /  Cancer

Kickstarting Cancer Research Pathways for Next-Gen Scientists

Medical researcher in blue gloves studying a specimen in a microscope
Article Summary
  • The American Cancer Society announced the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center recipients of its 2024 institutional research grants.
  • The grants support junior faculty members engaged in promising cancer research.
  • Grant awardees include Namrata Chandhok, M.D., Emiliano Cocco, Ph.D., Martín Rivas, Ph.D., and Benjamin Spieler, M.D.

It’s the biomedical version of the classic Catch-22 conundrum. Early-career researchers often can’t obtain funding because they have no track record. But they can’t establish a track record without financial backing to get the research ball rolling.

Stepping into the breach for the past 18 years, the American Cancer Society has provided Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, with internally competitive institutional research grants to support junior faculty members undertaking promising cancer research projects.

Supporting the Future of Medicine

Serving as a springboard to future achievements, the aim is to generate enticing, first-phase findings that allow budding investigators to compete for larger, external research grants from the National Institutes of Health and private philanthropic organizations.

“The American Cancer Society is proud to support future leaders in cancer research early in their careers,” said Joanne Elena, Ph.D., scientific director of the organization’s Clinical and Cancer Control Research Program. “Our longstanding collaboration with Sylvester propels innovative research that addresses the unacceptably high burden of cancer. The institutional research grants program helps identify the next generation of researchers to advance the American Cancer Society mission of ending cancer as we know it, for everyone.”

Joseph Rosenblatt, M.D., professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology at the Miller School, has been the program’s principal investigator since its launch at Sylvester in 2006.

“The American Cancer Society’s support is a shot in the arm for our recipients, enabling them to put their thoughts into action early in their careers,” said Dr. Rosenblatt, also the William J. Harrington Chair in Hematology. “I know from my own experience how impactful it is to tackle a highly competitive process and have your ideas validated by a panel of experts.”

The seed grants of $55,000 for each awardee, including $40,000 from the ACS and a matching $15,000 from Sylvester, help validate young investigators’ ideas and instill confidence. This year’s four recipients were formally recognized May 30 at an American Cancer Society ceremony.

“These grants are a terrific way of helping identify promising talent and galvanizing them with confidence,” said Dr. Rosenblatt. “I have seen a number of our institutional research grant recipients go on to become nationally recognized investigators. I have great confidence that this year’s outstanding recipients will do so as well.”

2024 Sylvester ACS-IRG Awardees

Namrata Chandhok, M.D., assistant professor of medicine in the Miller School’s Division of Hematology: Dr. Chandhok conducts research and treats patients with bone marrow disorders, including leukemia. She will examine the effectiveness of wearable devices, such as watches, in gathering real-time health data from hospitalized patients undergoing intensive chemotherapy or transplantation for acute leukemia. This population is at elevated risk for organ failure, cardiac arrest or death.

Using machine-learning algorithms, Dr. Chandhok and colleagues will identify impending problems, such as serious infections, before they materialize. Eventually, patients could be released from the hospital earlier with continual monitoring via wearable devices.

Dr. Emiliano Cocco

Emiliano Cocco, Ph.D., Miller School assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology: Dr. Cocco studies the biology of tumors with rare genetic alterations, including assessing how malignancies initially respond to, and occasionally evolve to become resistant to, targeted therapy. With the intent of developing safe, lasting interventions, he will evaluate the effect of combining two forms of approved treatments in patients with certain types of lung and thyroid cancer.

One remedy, RET inhibitors, targets alterations in the RET gene that cause cancer cells to multiply and spread. The second, SRC inhibitors, focuses on a specific enzyme linked to the development of numerous cancers. Despite initially positive responses to these approaches, resistance may still set in. Dr. Cocco’s strategy is to supercharge the therapies’ effectiveness by merging them to prevent, postpone or overcome resistance.

Dr. Emiliano Cocco

Martín Rivas, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Miller School: Dr. Rivas conducts research on the physical makeup of chromosomes involved in cancer and immunology. He will investigate a rare, potentially lethal form of leukemia that disproportionately affects children with Down syndrome: DS-related acute megakaryoblastic leukemia (DS-AMKL). Megakaryocytes are blood- and platelet-producing cells in bone marrow—soft, spongy material in the center of bones. Platelets are cell particles that form clots to stop or prevent bleeding.

Children with Down syndrome are up to five times more likely to develop AMKL. Dr. Rivas will build a first-ever experimental model that recapitulates all of DS-AMKL’s genetic abnormalities to prevent and treat the condition. The knowledge could also be extended to similar forms of cancer.

Dr. Emiliano Cocco

Benjamin Spieler, M.D., assistant professor of radiation oncology at the Miller School: Dr. Spieler researches and treats patients with genitourinary and gastrointestinal cancers. He will direct a pre-clinical trial of a precise form of ultra-high, single-dose radiation therapy, with the aim of potential application in men with non-metastatic prostate cancer. The goal is to activate the immune system and use combination therapies to boost clinical results.

While the current standard of delivering single-dose radiation to the entire prostate reduces the long-term risk of the cancer recurring, urinary, bowel, sexual and fertility problems can result. As an alternative, Dr. Spieler will employ a Sylvester-developed, single-dose approach that allows for precise detection and treatment of high-risk individual tumors. Ideally, the approach will eliminate the cancer while sparing healthy human tissue. He will conduct his study in the lab of Alan Pollack, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of radiation oncology at the Miller School.

Tags: American Cancer Society, Dr. Benjamin Spieler, Dr. Emiliano Cocco, Dr. Martin Rivas, Dr. Namrata Chandhok, institutional research grants, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center