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Four Cancer Researchers Win Funding to Conduct High-Risk, High-Reward Projects

Four Weill Cornell Medicine investigators have been awarded the Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research to support their research projects.

Dr. Yimon Aye, an assistant professor of biochemistry; Dr. Juan Cubillos-Ruiz, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology in obstetrics and gynecology; and Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences Assistant Professors Drs. Daniel Heller and Richard White, are among the six winners.

The prize, which provides $200,000 in yearly funding for up to three years, is awarded to New York-based scientists pursuing high-risk, high-reward cancer research. The winners will receive their awards on May 24. The Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance, which has been awarding the annual prizes since 2013, aims to contribute to finding cures for cancer by supporting innovative cancer research and facilitating collaborations between academia and industry.

Dr. Aye, also an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell University, is analyzing two newly discovered proteins that may play a fundamental role in treating drug-resistant blood cancer cells. She is also focusing on understanding a new role of an enzyme called ribonucleotide reductase (RNR) that can work in concert with these proteins to suppress tumors.

“We already have the platforms to discover new treatments, but how do we push to close that gap? The Pershing Square award will really give us the chance to reach that goal of developing medicines that lead to optimal outcomes,” Dr. Aye said.

Dr. Cubillos-Ruiz is investigating whether disabling stress sensors in immune cells may enhance the therapeutic efficacy of new types of vaccines for ovarian cancer. He will isolate immune cells from ovarian cancer patients, disable their stress sensors using gene-editing technologies and then insert them back into tumors in the laboratory to test their functionality.  

“We’re hoping this new type of modified immune cell will unleash potent anti-cancer responses capable of preventing disease recurrence,” said Dr. Cubillos-Ruiz, who is also co-founder of Quentis Therapeutics, a New York-based biotech company focused on developing innovative therapeutics in the onco-immunology field. “This is something not done in the clinical setting, armoring immune cells to be resistant to the harsh conditions in the tumors that suppress their function.”

Dr. Heller, also an assistant member in molecular pharmacology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is building nanoparticles to develop personalized medicines that target tumor sites while avoiding healthy cells. His research aims to make precision drugs more effective at killing tumors while significantly reducing their side effects.

“Using a nanotechnology approach, we hope to reinvent precision medicines to make them much more precise,” Dr. Heller said.

Dr. White, also an assistant member in cancer biology and genetics at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is investigating how non-cancerous fat cells support cancerous melanoma cells when they arrive in a new location – a process called metastasis. By inserting melanoma cells in zebrafish, which are transparent and whose DNA is easy to manipulate, he can observe how the non-cancerous cells surrounding the melanoma promote the disease’s growth.

“Understanding metastasis and its mechanisms and consequences requires people to take approaches that are somewhat out of the mainstream,” Dr. White said. “Part of that is allowing yourself to be wrong. And that freedom is what the Pershing prize gives people.”

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