Columbia’s Damon Runyon Fellows Innovating Pediatric Cancer Research

Jessie Brown

Marissa Rashkovan

Jessie Brown’s fascination with cancer research was born out of a personal connection to the disease, having lost family members to cancer as a child. Most impactful, she says, was during middle school when her grandfather passed away from cancer.

“I’ve witnessed, both personally and as a hospice care volunteer, the fear associated with that first diagnosis, the elation of remissive disease, and the despair when resistance develops and relapse occurs years later,” says Dr. Brown, a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Dr. Adolfo Ferrando

As the first in her family to attend college, Dr. Brown had never spent time in a laboratory. During her undergraduate years at University of Arizona, she was encouraged to do research and joined a breast cancer lab. “I’ve been hooked on cancer research ever since.” 

In July, Dr. Brown was named a pediatric cancer fellow by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. As one of just four new fellows, Dr. Brown is the recipient of the prestigious Damon Runyon-Sohn Pediatric Cancer Fellowship Award, committing nearly $1 million to help address a critical shortage of funding for pediatric cancer research. For the next four years, the fellowship will give her the opportunity to devote her time researching Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), an aggressive leukemia and one of the most common blood cancers in children and adolescents. 

Dr. Brown was also recognized as the inaugural Candy and William Raveis fellow, a new distinction in honor of the Raveis family’s work through their charitable fund to benefit cancer research.

As a member of the Ferrando lab in Columbia’s Institute for Cancer Genetics, Dr. Brown’s research is devoted to pediatric cancer. Dr. Ferrando, professor of pediatrics and of pathology, is a member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia/NewYork-Presbyterian and an expert in pediatric cancers. His lab focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms that promote and sustain the malignant proliferation and survival of leukemic cells. Major areas of interest include elucidating mechanisms of clonal evolution and resistance to chemotherapy in relapsed Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), the functional characterization of key leukemia oncogenes, and the identification of therapeutic targets and novel drug combinations for the treatment of high-risk leukemias.

Despite significant progress in the outcomes of patients with ALL, relapse is tied to high rates of drug resistance and poor prognosis. To this end, Dr. Brown’s project aims to understand the heterogeneity of different cell populations at diagnosis and relapse in matched patient samples to identify the role of rare cell populations in relapse and chemo-resistance. The hope is to then target these cells early on in disease to improve treatment outcomes. 

Part of her decision to pursue pediatric cancer came from the knowledge that some pediatric disease relies on distinct origins in comparison to adult cancers. “I’m interested in what makes pediatric cancer cells different and how we can target them. Children are also exposed to huge amounts of chemotherapy in the treatment of ALL, which means that they can be more at risk of developing other cancers later in life—and I am interested in developing improved therapeutics that could lead to better quality of life down the road.”

In the Ferrando lab, Dr. Brown joins postdoc Marissa Rashkovan, PhD, who is in her third year as a Damon Runyon-Sohn Pediatric Cancer fellow. To Dr. Rashkovan, receiving the award meant a great deal, particularly the foundation’s consistent support to both its current and former fellows. “I was very grateful to have been awarded this fellowship and to become a part of such a small, prestigious scientific community, especially so quickly after starting my postdoc at Columbia.” 

Dr. Rashkovan made the decision at 14 to pursue a career in cancer research after witnessing her mom’s battle with the disease. Her PhD focused on T-cell development and to some extent T-ALL, an aggressive leukemia, accounting for 10-15% of pediatric and 25% of adult ALL cases. As part of her Damon Runyon-Sohn fellowship, Dr. Rashkovan is focusing on a rare type of T-ALL (ETP-ALL) that has poor prognosis and poor survival rates. Using the cell’s metabolism, she is aiming to identify specific drugs or pathways that can be targeted in these cells to improve the outcome of these patients. Dr. Rashkovan was drawn to Columbia after meeting Dr. Ferrando and attending a few of his scientific talks.  

“The Ferrando lab was using state-of-the-art techniques and out-of-the-box thinking to identify the molecular mechanisms in the pathogenesis of pediatric T-ALL,” she says, “and the work being done there was making a huge impact on our understanding of this complex disease.”

For Dr. Brown,  being at Columbia and a member of the Ferrando lab has meant conducting research in a “dynamic and collaborative work environment where graduate students and postdocs are constantly learning and perfecting new techniques and technologies.” 

She adds, “It is easy to find anyone here that is an expert in that new technique you wanted to try, and I appreciate all the support and guidance I have received from my fellow scientists.” 

-Melanie A. Farmer