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Weill Cornell Medicine Scientists Awarded Grants for Promising Cancer Research

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Dr. Juan R. Cubillos-Ruiz
All photos courtesy of Stand Up 2 Cancer

Two Weill Cornell Medicine scientists have received prestigious Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) grants totaling nearly $1.5 million for their innovative research projects in ovarian cancer and combination cancer therapy.

Their awards, given to young researchers with proposals that could eventually have a significant impact in the clinic, were announced on April 18 at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research, SU2C's scientific partner.

Recipient Dr. Juan R. Cubillos-Ruiz was awarded $746,145 to study lipid messengers, which are molecules that ovarian cancer cells release causing immune cells to malfunction. His goal is to develop a better understanding of how these lipid messengers work and to determine whether blocking their activity with targeted drugs, some of which are already being studied for lung disease, could help the immune system to function better.

The goal is to develop new therapeutic strategies "to empower and rearm immune cells to work against ovarian cancer," said Dr. Cubillos-Ruiz, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology in obstetrics and gynecology and a member of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. The immune system has a remarkable ability to recognize and eliminate cancer cells. However, tumors use various strategies to fight back and crush the immune response. Notably, ovarian cancer is a lethal disease in which immune cells don't work properly.

The drugs Dr. Cubillos-Ruiz and his lab will study could help to create anti-tumor immune responses in women with metastatic ovarian cancer who have already undergone standard treatments such as surgery and chemotherapy. They may also help to prevent their ovarian cancer from recurring.

Other aggressive cancers such as those in the pancreas and breast also release regulatory lipids, so the researchers' findings may also be applicable to such diseases, Dr. Cubillos-Ruiz said.

Dr. Dan Landau

Weill Cornell Medicine's other SU2C grant recipient, Dr. Dan Landau, an assistant professor of medicine and of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine and core member of the New York Genome Center, was awarded $750,000 to study a personalized approach to treating cancer.

The grant was "a tremendous vote of confidence," said Dr. Landau, who is also a member of the Meyer Cancer Center and of the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. "To prioritize transformational creative approaches over conservative research is especially critical for young investigators."

Cancer is composed of many different cell populations that are genetically distinct from one another. This is why doctors need to treat cancers with a combination of drugs, with each medication targeting and destroying a different cell population. However, researchers are lacking a framework to guide the design of such combinations, Dr. Landau said.

With the SU2C funds, he and his colleagues will study the growth rates of these different cell populations in response to drug combinations, both in cell samples in the lab and in patients, focusing on chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) as a disease model. They are particularly interested in cell populations known to be resistant to existing chemotherapies and targeted therapies.

Based on their findings, the researchers plan to develop advanced mathematical models of cancer growth and how each cell population responds to specific drugs. Dr. Landau envisions that these models will predict the course of the cancer and enable doctors to "control its future trajectory using advanced algorithms of combination therapy."

As part of the study, these models will be used to create personalized treatment plans for patients who will undergo real-time monitoring of CLL growth. This monitoring helps researchers to continuously adjust and optimize therapy in each patient. In contrast, current clinical trials require many years to generate meaningful results that impact treatment, trailing behind the fast pace of therapeutic innovation.

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