The 2021 Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research has been awarded to Christine Iok In Chio, PhD, and Xuebing Wu, PhD, for their out-of-the box approaches to cancer research. The Pershing Square Sohn Prize provides early career scientists the freedom to take risks and pursue bold research at a stage when traditional funding is lacking. Drs. Chio and Wu join four other leading young investigators to receive the award this year.
Dr. Chio, an assistant professor of genetics and development in the Institute for Cancer Genetics at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons and member of the Tumor Biology and Microenvironment program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC), focuses on understanding the biological mechanisms that drive one of the most lethal cancers: pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, or PDA. Although most PDA patients carry common pathogenic mutations (G12D, G12V) of the KRAS gene, therapeutic agents that effectively target mutant KRAS are still not available. Dr. Chio and her lab have taken a specific interest in the role metabolic byproducts generated by KRAS-including reactive oxygen species (ROS)-play in tumor growth and disease progression. Her lab is experimenting with ex vivo organoid models and chemical proteomic approaches to better understand the basic mechanisms behind ROS biology.
“We’ll exploit these insights to develop novel therapeutic strategies to combat this highly lethal form of pancreatic cancer,” says Dr. Chio.
Dr. Chio has received many honors and grant funding support in her early career, including from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, the V Foundation, the National Pancreas Foundation, and Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. She also is a Paul Marks Scholar and the 2020 recipient of the Ruth Leff Siegel Award for Excellence in Pancreatic Cancer Research.
Dr. Wu, assistant professor of medicine and of systems biology and a member of the Precision Oncology and System Biology program at the HICCC, seeks to bridge the discovery of basic mechanisms of gene regulation with the development of novel therapeutics for human diseases, focusing on cancer and cardiometabolic diseases. With the support from the Sohn Prize, Dr. Wu and his lab aim to develop a technology for mutation-specific elimination of tumor cells, by integrating a highly programmable CRISPR “gene-editing” system with advanced machine learning algorithms.
“Cancer is caused by mutations in the genome. While those mutations are in principle the most specific drug target and can be routinely identified by DNA sequencing for each patient, we do not yet have a way to kill cancer cells by directly targeting those mutations,” says Dr. Wu. “Instead, current cancer therapies target the downstream effects of those driver mutations, which are less specific. This prize will allow us to develop a potentially transformative technology that turns personalized cancer therapy into reality.”
Research in the Wu lab combines CRISPR, genomics, and machine learning to decode and target RNA in human health and disease. Dr. Wu has received a number of other distinctions in recent years, including The RNA Society/Scaringe Young Scientist Award, Pew-Stewart Scholars Award and NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.
Pershing Sohn prizewinners each receive $200,000 a year of funding for up to three years. At least six grants are awarded annually. Several other HICCC members have been awarded the Pershing Sohn Prize in recent years, including Tal Danino, PhD, a 2020 recipient of the Pershing Sohn Prize. Dr. Danino uses synthetic biology and bioengineering approaches to engineer probiotic bacteria as safe and effective cancer therapies.