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Sylvester Fuels Junior Faculty Members’ Research Careers with American Cancer Society Grants

Leadership at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine has selected four junior faculty members to receive research funding through the American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grant (ACS-IRG) program.

A photo of four junior faculty members.

ACS-IRG funding aims to help assistant professors launch promising cancer-related research that helps spur extramural grant applications, especially to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Sylvester, the University of Florida and Moffit Cancer Center are the only ACS-IRG awardees in Florida, receiving a total of $1.6 million in funding.

Joseph D. Rosenblatt, M.D., professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology and the William J. Harrington Chair in Hematology at the Miller School, has been Sylvester’s ACS-IRG principal investigator (PI) since it was first funded in 2006. The American Cancer Society renewed Sylvester’s IRG funding in 2022.

“The ACS-IRG is a unique program in Sylvester’s funding portfolio, designed specifically to foster the career development of junior faculty,” Dr. Rosenblatt said. “With only 43 ACS-IRG awards in the country, most cancer centers, even National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers, do not have this mechanism to further junior faculty careers.”

The ACS-IRG lends credibility to Sylvester’s commitment to supporting early-career faculty and has played a pivotal role in faculty development over the past two decades, according to Dr. Rosenblatt.

2023 Sylvester ACS-IRG Awardees

Kevin Van der Jeught, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology

A photo of Kevin Van der Jeught, Ph.D.
Kevin Van der Jeught, Ph.D.

Dr. Van der Jeught’s lab focuses on improving immunotherapies, or the use of therapies that harness one’s immune system to recognize and fight a patient’s cancer.

The ACS-IRG funding will go to further Dr. Van der Jeught’s research on using mRNA as a cancer vaccination tool. The COVID-19 pandemic put the spotlight on mRNA vaccines, but early studies on these vaccines were done in cancer research, according to Dr. Van der Jeught, who, while working on his Ph.D. in 2014, was the first to publish on the direct intratumoral (within a tumor) use of mRNA as a vaccine in solid tumors.

“Essential findings remain to be elucidated for mRNA vaccination,” Dr. Van der Jeught said. “This grant will help to uncover key mechanisms to improve intratumoral mRNA vaccination.”

Dr. Van der Jeught specializes in colorectal cancer research and will use this tumor model in his newly funded study.

“The discoveries we make during this project are potentially applicable to several other cancer types, such as breast cancer,” he said.

Defne Bayik, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology

A photo of Defne Bayik, Ph.D.
Defne Bayik, Ph.D.

Dr. Bayik’s ACS-IRG grant aims to help Dr. Bayik and colleagues understand the complex interactions between brain tumors and myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs).

MDSCs are an inhibitory type of an immune cell family in the tumor microenvironment, which correlate with poor brain tumor outcomes and treatment resistance.

“Understanding the complex interactions between tumors and MDSCs is important for the development of more effective anti-cancer therapies by re-educating the immune system to fight against tumors,” said Dr. Bayik.

Ashish H. Shah, M.D., Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery

A photo of Ashish H. Shah, M.D.
Ashish H. Shah, M.D.

Dr. Shah received funding for his study “Uncovering the role of an ancient retroviral protein, HML-6 ENV, in glioblastoma.”

“Retroviral genes can be found in roughly 8% of our human DNA, but scientists have mostly considered these genes to be ‘junk DNA,’” Dr. Shah said.

That may not be the case.

“We have found a specific gene from a six million-year-old retrovirus that may play a role in glioblastoma, the deadliest brain cancer,” he said. “This gene, HML-6, is highly expressed in brain tumors, but not in healthy tissue, and is associated with poor outcomes. Our study aims to understand how HML-6 affects brain tumor formation and explore novel ways to target these viral genes in cancer cells.”

Alejandro Villarino, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology

Alejandro Villarino, Ph.D.
Alejandro Villarino, Ph.D.

Dr. Villarino’s funding will go toward addressing a fundamental problem in cancer research.

“A major problem in cancer research is that our capacity to identify genetic mutations associated with a given cancer far outpaces our capacity to determine how each affects gene function,” Dr. Villarino said. “We are working to develop a methodology that allows us to ascribe functional consequences to hundreds — potentially thousands — of cancer-associated mutations at once. As proof of principle, we have chosen to screen 75 mutants of the gene Stat3, which is often mutated in cancers of immune cells.”

Understanding how each patient’s mutation impacts gene function is key to advancing personalized medicine, he said.

The seed grants of $55,000 for each awardee, including $40,000 from the ACS and a matching $15,000 from Sylvester, help to validate young investigators’ ideas and instill confidence. This is especially important early in their careers when they are not yet as seasoned, according to Dr. Rosenblatt.

“The awards allow early-career PIs to explore ideas for which they may not otherwise have the resources, such as ideas that are early in gestation but highly innovative and perhaps riskier than projects that would usually be funded by peer-reviewed funding agencies,” he said.

Many Sylvester ACS-IRG awardees have gone on to secure highly competitive and prestigious grants from the NIH, the state of Florida, foundations and other funding agencies and are nationally and internationally recognized for their contributions to the field, according to Dr. Rosenblatt.

“Ensuring everyone has the opportunity to prevent cancer and receive high-quality treatment and support for cancer is the foundation of our work, and our longstanding collaboration with Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center helps us lean into this mission in meaningful ways,” said Dr. Ellie Daniels, senior vice president, Center for Diversity in Cancer Research Training at the American Cancer Society. “Our grantmaking mechanisms like the IRG program allow us to fuel innovation through the next generation of researchers, while also creating intentional opportunities for us to conduct equity-focused research to reduce barriers to the disparities that persist across diverse populations.”

In January 2023, the American Cancer Society awarded Sylvester a supplement to the ACS-IRG to fund an internship for undergraduates from racial/ethnic backgrounds underrepresented in science and medicine. The program, called the Diversity in Cancer Research (DICR) Internship Program, includes a 10-week summer immersion in hands-on, innovative biomedical research and clinical shadowing with Sylvester and Miller School faculty from multiple disciplines.

Tags: American Cancer Society, cancer research, Dr. Alejandro Villarino, Dr. Ashish Shah, Dr. Defne Bayik, Dr. Kevin Van der Jeught, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center