Two Investigators Win Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Cancer Research

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Dr. Marcin Imielinski, an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, and Dr. Elena Piskounova, an assistant professor of cell biology in dermatology, both at Weill Cornell Medicine, were awarded the 2021 Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research on May 18.

The Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance gives the prize annually to six early-career scientists in the greater New York City area. Each winner receives $200,000 a year for up to three years to fund innovative cancer research and encourage collaborations with industry.

“There are many impressive people in the New York scientific community who have won this award, so it’s a great feeling to be recognized,” said Dr. Imielinski, who is also a member of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine, and a core faculty member at the New York Genome Center. “The Pershing Square Sohn Alliance supports innovative paradigm-shifting science, so the fact that they’re willing to fund this project is very exciting. I can’t wait to get started.”

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Dr. Marcin Imielinski. Credit: John Abbott

The award will support his investigation into a class of genetic mutations frequently found in acral melanomas, a type of skin cancer that occurs on the hands and feet. Known as tyfonas, these mutations both amplify and re-arrange big chunks of the genome and are more difficult to study than better-understood substitution mutations. Using whole genome sequencing, his lab will seek to understand how tyfonas evolve and may cause certain patients to respond to immunotherapy. Currently, only a limited portion of the cancer genome is sequenced in clinical settings.

“We’re at the cusp of doing whole genome sequencing routinely in the clinic, and what we're showing here is a proof-of-concept for the sort of information you can get for sequencing whole genomes,” said Dr. Imielinski, who is also an assistant professor of computational genomics in computational biomedicine at the HRH Prince Alweed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

The prize will support Dr. Piskounova’s research into metastasis, which is the deadly spread of cancer cells to vital organs.

“Metastasis is an inefficient process since blood and vital organs are hostile environment,” she said. “Cancer cells are forced to adapt to different types of stress in order to survive and grow, which is why it takes some patients decades to progress to metastatic disease. But the cancers that do spread ultimately kill the patient.”

Female scientist working in a lab

Dr. Elena Piskounova

Dr. Piskounova, who is also a member of the Meyer Cancer Center, will investigate how metastasizing cancer cells quickly adapt in response to different stresses as they spread through the bloodstream and into new organs. She hypothesizes that this rapid adaptation happens through modifications in transfer RNA (tRNAs) that change the cells’ protein composition, known as the proteome. Using patient-derived melanoma tumors transplanted into mice, she will identify distinct chemical modifications of tRNAs that enhance synthesis of specific stress-response proteins. Enzymes that are responsible for synthesizing these modifications represent attractive druggable targets specific to metastatic disease and have a high potential for translation into the clinic.

“Getting this award is really exciting. I wanted to propose something unique and slightly crazy, and I can’t wait to get started,” Dr. Piskounova said. “I feel like Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance is exactly the type of foundation that is willing to support and encourage research that is unconventional.”

The Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance is a partnership between the Pershing Square Foundation and the Sohn Conference Foundation to support research into cures for cancer. The Pershing Square Foundation was founded by Bill and Karen Ackman and awards grants in support of social causes, including health and medicine. The Sohn Conference Foundation was founded in honor of Ira W. Sohn, who died of cancer at age 29, to raise money to support research into children with cancer and other illnesses.

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