Deputy Director of Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center Receives $3 Million Grant from Gray Foundation

PHILADELPHIA – Katherine L. Nathanson, MD, deputy director of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pearl Basser Professor for BRCA-Related Research in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, has been awarded a $3 million research grant from the Gray Foundation. This new Team Science Grant, titled the “Determinants of immune activity and molecular features in BRCA1/2 mutation carriers,” will support Nathanson and her team as they study new approaches to understanding immune function both in healthy BRCA mutation carriers and BRCA-related cancers. It is one of seven teams to receive a Team Science Grant nationally, with The Gray Foundation awarding $25 million total.

The Team Science Grant will support two lines of Nathanson’s research. First, she and her team will investigate the immune systems of healthy individuals with BRCA1/2 mutations, using the flu vaccine, to see if there are differences in the way in which their immune systems respond to the vaccine. They will also investigate the immune systems of those with normal breast health to determine whether there are differences between mutation and non-mutation carriers. Second, they will work with BRCA1/2-related breast cancers to determine if the molecular features are linked to immunogenicity, building upon Nathanson’s prior studies.

“The Gray Foundation has been a tremendous supporter of my research, and more broadly, cancer research across Penn Medicine,” Nathanson said. “I’m thrilled to be included in this impressive group of scientists and even more excited to continue seeking a bright, health-filled future for all those with BRCA1/2 mutations.”

E. John Wherry, PhD, director of Penn’s Institute for Immunology, and Marylyn D. Ritchie, PhD, director of Penn’s Center for Translational Bioinformatics, are part of Nathanson’s research team. That group also extends beyond Philadelphia and the United States to include Antonis Antoniou, PhD, from the University of Cambridge and Georgia Chenevix-Trench, PhD, from the Queensland Institute for Medical Research. Roger Greenberg, MD, PhD, director of Basic Science at the Basser Center for BRCA, along with the grant’s principal investigator, Patrick Sung of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, were awarded $3.75 million for their research, “Dissection of BRCA-mediated Tumor Suppression Pathways.” Susan Domchek, MD, executive director of the Basser Center for BRCA, and Ronny Drapkin, MD, PhD, director of Gynecological Research at the Basser Center for BRCA, along with the grant’s principal investigator, Victor Velculescu of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, were awarded $3.75 million for their research, “Early detection of cancer in high-risk BRCA mutation carriers using liquid biopsies.” Additional teams are led by researchers from Harvard University, Cornell University, and the Cleveland Clinic.

The lifetime risk of female breast cancer is up to 75 percent in the setting of a BRCA1/2 mutation. The lifetime risks of ovarian cancer and prostate cancer are 50 percent and 25 percent respectively.

“It’s a serious concern for many individuals, especially those in the Ashkenazi Jewish population who are more likely to carry a BRCA1/2 mutation than the general public,” says Nathanson. “But I’m truly encouraged by the brilliant, compassionate researchers working toward better treatment and prevention.”

Nathanson is an international leader in cancer genetics and genomics and is lauded for her clinical and research work in a multitude of cancer areas. Her published work totals more than 280 peer-reviewed articles and can be found in the pages of journals like Nature, JAMA, and the New England Journal of Medicine.

The Gray Foundation, led by University of Pennsylvania alumni Mindy and Jon Gray, is committed to supporting BRCA research. In 2012, the Grays made a transformative gift to establish the Basser Center for BRCA at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center. The Basser Center for BRCA was named after Mindy’s sister, Faith Basser, who at age 44 passed away from BRCA-related ovarian cancer. The Grays have given a total of $55 million to the Basser Center. The couple has also continued supporting projects around the world aimed at preventing the molecular changes in cells that lead to cancer, extending educational resources to at-risk populations, and understanding racial disparities in BRCA mutations and associated cancers.

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