Damon Runyon Foundation supports early-career cancer docs

By Jan Jarvis

Two UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers – Dr. Deepak Nijhawan, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and Biochemistry, and Dr. Kenneth Chen, Assistant Instructor of Pediatrics – have received awards from the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

From left: Dr. Kenneth Chen, Dr. Deepak Nijhawan
From left: Dr. Kenneth Chen, Dr. Deepak Nijhawan

Dr. Nijhawan is one of nine top early-career clinical investigators selected by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation to receive $450,000 over three years to support the development of cancer research.

Also being recognized as an outstanding young scientist is Dr. Chen, recipient of the Damon Runyon-Sohn Pediatric Cancer Research Fellowship Award. Honorees receive an award of $186,000 over three years to conduct research with the potential to impact significantly the prevention, diagnosis, or treatment of pediatric cancers.

Dr. Nijhawan’s research will focus on identifying novel targets in lung cancer that can lead to the development of effective therapies. He has identified a set of chemicals called benzothiazoles that are effective in blocking the growth of 25 percent of lung cancer cell types tested. Dr. Nijhawan’s research is aimed at identifying which lung cancer patients would benefit most from treatment with benzothiazoles.

“Instead of searching for a chemical to treat lung cancer, we’re starting with it and going backward,” Dr. Nijhawan said. “We’re letting the chemicals guide our discovery process.”

Dr. Nijhawan works under the mentorship of Dr. Steven McKnight, Chairman of Biochemistry, and Dr. David Johnson, Chairman of Internal Medicine.

Award recipients are “outstanding early career physician-scientists conducting patient-oriented cancer research at a major research center under the mentorship of the nation’s leading scientists and clinicians,” according to the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

Dr. Chen plans to use the funding to study how dysregulated expression of microRNAs causes Wilms tumors in children. He will work with his mentor, Dr. James Amatruda, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Internal Medicine, and Molecular Biology. Wilms tumor is the fourth-most common cancer in children.

“Most kids with this do really well, but for those with high-risk disease, the outcomes are still very poor, and the children end up with a lot of toxicities from radiation and chemotherapy,” Dr. Chen said. “My hope is to develop less-toxic, more-effective, targeted therapies.”

The Sohn Conference Foundation is dedicated to curing pediatric cancer. The fellowship award was established in 2012 in partnership with the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, an organization that funds cutting-edge scientific research to support innovative pediatric cancer researchers.

Dr. Amatruda, a Horchow Family Scholar in Pediatrics, holds the Nearburg Family Professorship in Pediatric Oncology Research.

Dr. Johnson holds the Donald W. Seldin Distinguished Chair in Internal Medicine.

Dr. McKnight holds the Sam G. Winstead and F. Andrew Bell Distinguished Chair in Biochemistry, and the Distinguished Chair in Basic Biomedical Research.

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