Honoring Promising Young Investigators in Clinical Cancer Research

Advances in cancer clinical research and patient care will not be the only points of interest covered at this year’s ASCO, the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting, held May 31 to June 4. Promising junior investigators will share the spotlight as ASCO honors this year’s class of Young Investigator Award (YIA) recipients, and six are physician-researchers from the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center

“This is a stellar year for our recipients of the ASCO Conquer Cancer Foundation Awards,” says Gary Schwartz, MD, division chief of Hematology/Oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. “This is really an amazing achievement for us and speaks to the success of our fellowship program, our outstanding fellows and to our great faculty mentors who have made these grant awards possible.” Dr. Schwartz is also the deputy director of the HICCC, and a professor of oncology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

This year, the YIA recipients at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia include Rajat Bansal, MD; Matthew Dallos, MD; Jessica Hawley, MD; Bahar Laderian, MD; Alexander Raufi, MD; and Vikram Premkumar, MD. Conquer Cancer, ASCO’s foundation arm that administers the awards, will also present a Career Development Award to Matthew Ingham, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia and an oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia.

Conquer Cancer Foundation (CCF) each year provides funding to promising investigators to encourage and promote quality research in clinical oncology. The purpose of the one-year young investigator grant is to fund physicians during their transition from a fellowship program to a faculty appointment. The awardees from NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia will be focusing their winning research on areas such as immunotherapy in metastatic prostate cancer and in gastric cancer, identifying unique molecular targets for potential therapies in multiple myeloma, and evaluating novel treatments for sarcoma, a rare cancer with more than 50 different tumor subtypes. 

Supporting the careers of junior investigators contribute directly to the future of clinical research and patient care. At Columbia, junior investigators are able to work with mentors on grant proposals, and the collaboration between fellows and faculty are critical in training next-generation cancer physician-researchers—a priority at Columbia.

“The summer grant-writing course for our fellows, for instance, has been ongoing for over 10 years, and during this course, our multi-disciplinary fellows in adult and pediatric hematology/oncology, gynecologic oncology, and radiation oncology get practical experience in developing research hypotheses and honing their scientific writing skills,” says Kathy Crew, MD, a HICCC member and associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia and oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. Dr. Crew also co-directs a newly established program at Columbia devoted to training medical residents to conduct relevant, hypothesis-driven research in the cancer field. 

“The ASCO Young Investigator Awards,” she adds, “are a great vehicle for new investigators to gain exposure to rigorous clinical and translational research and jump start their academic research careers.”

Dr. Matthew Ingham, a recipient of CCF’s Career Development award, will be investigating the causes of sarcomas—their growth and development—and use these insights to develop new, targeted treatment approaches that are more effective and less toxic than traditional chemotherapy. 

He points to his mentor, Dr. Schwartz, a leading expert in sarcomas and melanoma, for his unwavering support and for inspiring him to conduct a humane, compassionate approach to patient care. 

“I have acquired the skills necessary for effective clinical and translational research through my experience working with him during fellowship,” says Dr. Ingham. “He [Dr. Schwartz] is always available to help and is clearly invested in the success of junior faculty and fellows at Columbia.” 

YIA recipient Jessica Hawley, MD, a clinical oncology fellow co-mentored by Drs. Charles Drake and Mark Stein, says she is fortunate to count two incredible mentors who have helped support and guide her career as a physician-investigator. Dr. Drake is director of genitourinary oncology and associate director for clinical research at the HICCC, professor of medicine and urology, and an oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. Dr. Stein is associate professor of medicine at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and an oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. 

“My mentors' distinct but overlapping skillsets really complement each other nicely,” she says. “It's the perfect marriage of clinical trial investigation and basic science/immunology.” Collectively Dr. Hawley's mentors have helped her promote and present her research in front of key leaders and faculty outside of Columbia. "They surround me in an environment where I can thrive as both an investigator and a clinician."

The NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia group of awardees will be honored during a ceremony on May 31 at ASCO in Chicago. Oncology is a diverse medical and research field that draws physician-scientists for a multitude of reasons. But, all have one common goal: to put an end to cancer. 

“The field of oncology is progressing rapidly, with new discoveries and treatments being made on a daily basis,” says award recipient Alexander Raufi, MD. “I chose to pursue this field not only because I want to be a part of this change, but also because I want to help bring these advances more rapidly to those affected by cancer …  My patients consistently motivate me to engage in research that may both extend and improve the quality of their lives.”

Following is a complete list of NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia YIA recipients and their winning research projects. 

Rajat Bansal, MD: “Phase II, single arm, open label study to assess the efficacy of GLP-2 agonist ZP1846 in the prevention of melphalan induced diarrhea among bone marrow transplant patients.”

Matthew Dallos, MD: “Maximizing androgen deprivation immunogenicity through PD-1 and IL-8 blockade in castration-sensitive prostate cancer.”

Jessica Hawley, MD: “Augmenting the ADT-induced immune infiltrate in metastatic hormone-sensitive prostate cancer with PD-1 blockade and docetaxel.”

Bahar Laderian, MD: “Toward a better understanding of a rare cancer: studies to explore the etiology and biology of SDHx-associated pheochromocytomas and paragangliomas.”

Alexander Raufi, MD: “A phase II study of chemotherapy and immune checkpoint blockade with pembrolizumab in the perioperative and maintenance treatment of locoregional gastric and gastroesophageal junction adenocarcinoma.”

Vikram Premkumar, MD: “Identifying the role of Programmed Death-1 Homolog (PD-1H) on osteoclast signaling and activation within the bony microenvironment in multiple myeloma bone disease.”  

Career Development Award:

Matthew Ingham, MD: “A Phase II Study of the PARP Inhibitor Olaparib in Combination with the DNA Damaging Agent Temozolomide for the Treatment of Advanced Uterine Leiomyosarcoma.”

-Melanie A. Farmer