Sylvester Junior Faculty Selected for K12 Research Grants
Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center junior faculty members Benjamin Spieler, M.D., and Coral Olazagasti, M.D., are the cancer center’s newest K12 Calabresi Clinical Oncology Research Career Development Award scholars, receiving support and training to pursue clinical and translational research projects.
The K12 program is currently funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and prepares early-career faculty for independent research careers in clinical and translational oncology. It is designed to be a comprehensive training program with an emphasis on bench-to-bedside translation of promising treatment and/or biomarkers in clinical trials. The new K12 scholars will be supported by Sylvester for the next year while the grant renewal is submitted.
With the addition of Drs. Spieler and Olazagasti, 12 junior faculty members have benefited from the K12 program to date — half funded by the NCI with additional support from Sylvester, and half funded fully by Sylvester. The vision and commitment by Sylvester Director Stephen Nimer, M.D., and other leadership is resulting in a rapid expansion of translational physician-scientists at the cancer center.
“Our goal is to identify and establish new faculty leaders in clinical and translational oncology research,” said Alan Pollack, M.D., Ph.D., K12 grant principal investigator and chair of Radiation Oncology at Sylvester. “Here at Sylvester we have many tremendously motivated, talented junior faculty, and we are fortunate to be able to give a select group the time, funding and mentorship to develop their research programs, advance in their fields and ultimately improve cancer care delivery and patient outcomes.”
The K12 Program at Sylvester is filling an important gap for early-career translational cancer researchers by providing the education, skills and protected time needed to pursue highly promising science from bench to bedside, according to K12 Associate Director Jaime R. Merchan, M.D., co-leader of the Translational and Clinical Oncology Research Program and director of the phase 1 clinical trials program at Sylvester.
“The K12 curriculum and interactions between scholars and K12 Program leadership, mentors and community advisors help improve the quality of translational projects, which often lead to impactful investigator-initiated clinical trials, peer-reviewed grants and publications,” Dr. Merchan said.
The New Awardees
In his personal statement for the K12 funding, Dr. Spieler noted that learning from Dr. Pollack during his radiation oncology residency at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine inspired his interest in improving outcomes for men with clinically significant prostate cancer.
Among Dr. Spieler’s research projects today, and the centerpiece of his K12 scholar application, is the Miami UAdapt Molecular Characterization Trial, which aims to better understand prostate cancer patient response to high-dose radiation therapy and to identify and develop ways, such as combination therapies, to overcome treatment resistance. This research is designed to impact prostate cancer patients across a wide spectrum of the disease.
“The K12 Calabresi Career Development Award represents an incredible opportunity to develop the leadership, administrative and scientific skills necessary to become an independent investigator and a mentor for others,” said Dr. Spieler, assistant professor of radiation oncology at Sylvester.
For Dr. Olazagasti, assistant professor of medical oncology at the cancer center, the K12 funding will help propel her research on lung cancer screening in Hispanics, who are the largest-growing minority group in the U.S. but face barriers to health care access, including cancer screenings.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in men who are Hispanic/Latin, and the second most common cause of cancer-related death in women in this population, said Dr. Olazagasti.
“This award will allow me to create tools to close the gap in lung cancer screening disparities that exist for this minority population,” Dr. Olazagasti said. “My goal is to continue developing and conducting lung cancer screening initiatives that will positively impact the Hispanic population by improving the rates of early detection of lung cancer, and therefore overall mortality.”
Dr. Olazagasti is committed to addressing inequities in lung cancer outcomes, which is of significant importance to the South Florida community, according to K12 Associate Director and one of Dr. Olazagasti’s mentors, Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director of Population Sciences and Cancer Disparity at Sylvester.
“The K12 will give her further ability to accomplish this goal through translational research that has clinical importance and community impact,” Dr. Kobetz said.
This Year’s K12 Symposium
The K12 curriculum includes an annual symposium, held this year on March 31, during which current Sylvester K12 awardees share their research to date, get feedback from internal and external clinical and translational oncology leaders and ask questions of past K12 scholars farther along in their career paths. Dr. Pollack directed this year’s symposium.
Five active K12 scholars presented their research. Namrata Chandhok, M.D., talked about her research focused on niche populations in myeloid cancers, or cancers that start in the bone marrow cells. Janaki Sharma, M.D., discussed soluble guanylyl cyclase as an actionable target in castrate-resistant prostate cancer. Trent Wang, D.O., M.P.H., presented findings on research focused on prevention and treatment of graft-versus-host disease, which impacts more than half of cancer patients who receive hematopoietic stem cell transplant. Benjamin Diamond, M.D., discussed the paradigm shift in treatment of multiple myeloma that has recurred or resists treatment, including the treatment-related consequences of using newer combinations of immunotherapeutic medications. Katherine Amin, M.D., presented research on the effects of using aromatase inhibitors on the genitourinary microbiome of breast cancer patients.
Each of these scholars has received two years of funding through the K12 program.
The symposium also featured a career development panel with former K12 scholars from around the U.S., including Sylvester K12 scholar Eric Mellon, M.D., Ph.D., co-leader of Sylvester’s Neurologic Cancer Site Disease Group and associate professor of Radiation Oncology and Biomedical Engineering at the Miller School.
“The K12 has done a lot for me and my career, and I always appreciate the opportunity to help mentor the next generation of scholars,” Dr. Mellon said. “Fortunately, thanks to the K12 and the success thereafter, I’m currently applying to tenure track. I went from almost no funding when I started the K12 in 2019 to a significant amount of funding less than four years later.”