Cancer researchers receive NCI Outstanding Investigator Awards totaling $11.7 million

Drs. White and Mendell
Dr. Michael White (left), Professor of Cell Biology, who studies personalized cancer therapies, and Dr. Joshua Mendell, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Professor of Molecular Biology, who studies biology mechanisms involved in cancer, received National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Awards.

DALLAS – Sept. 11, 2015 –The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has awarded two researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center more than $11 million to support their exceptional research programs.

Dr. Michael White, Professor of Cell Biology, who studies personalized cancer therapies, and Dr. Joshua Mendell, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Professor of Molecular Biology, who studies biology mechanisms involved in cancer, received National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Awards, which fund cancer biologists who have outstanding records of research productivity.

“We are honored that the NCI has selected two of our researchers for these awards, which will support significant research seeking answers to the complexities of cancer development and treatment,” said Dr. James Willson, Director of the Simmons Cancer Center, Associate Dean of Oncology Programs, Professor of Internal Medicine, and holder of The Lisa K. Simmons Distinguished Chair in Comprehensive Oncology at UT Southwestern.

The Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center in North Texas and one of just 45 NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation.

Dr. White, who holds the Grant A. Dove Distinguished Chair for Research in Oncology, and the Sherry Wigley Crow Cancer Research Endowed Chair in Honor of Robert Lewis Kirby, M.D., received more than $6.5 million for his work to identify biomarkers that can help personalize therapy by identifying who might respond best to certain treatments. Dr. White’s lab is searching for biomarkers that identify patients who may respond particularly well to a given chemotherapy.

 “A pressing challenge for the cancer research community is the development of pharmaceuticals that selectively target newly discovered disease mechanisms within appropriate cancer patients,” Dr. White said. “The overarching goal of our research program is to help meet this challenge. With this new research support, we will identify effective intervention targets that are required for tumor formation in diverse genetic backgrounds, develop lead compounds that inactivate these targets, and determine features that allow detection of the presence of these targets in patients.”

Dr. Mendell, a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) Scholar, received $5.1 million for his lab’s investigation into how a class of genes that produce noncoding RNAs contributes to cancer.  Most genes that have been studied in the past are first copied from DNA into a molecule called RNA, which is then read by cellular machinery to produce a protein.

Noncoding RNA genes, however, are copied into RNA but never made into proteins. Investigators have learned that noncoding RNAs are often present at abnormal levels in cancer cells and can contribute to human malignancies. Thousands of noncoding RNAs are made by human cells, but the functions of the vast majority of these macromolecules remain a mystery.

“A better understanding of noncoding RNAs and the cellular mechanisms they control may one day lead to the development of new anti-cancer therapies,” Dr. Mendell said. “Since this NCI award provides seven years of generous support, it will allow my laboratory to embark upon more ambitious research projects that will have greater potential to lead to breakthroughs in cancer biology.”

The NCI Outstanding Investigator Award, developed in 2014, allows selected researchers to continue their work or to embark upon new projects of high risk and potential. The seven-year award provides investigators with opportunities to break new ground or extend previous discoveries that advance biomedical, behavioral, or clinical cancer research. 

Award recipients, nominated by their institutions, are cancer researchers who have served as principal investigators on an NCI grant for the last five years and have demonstrated outstanding research productivity. The NCI anticipates funding approximately 60 outstanding investigators nationwide from the first round of applications submitted in 2015.

The Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center includes 13 major cancer care programs with a focus on treating the whole patient with innovative treatments, while fostering groundbreaking basic research that has the potential to improve patient care and prevention of cancer worldwide. In addition, the Center’s education and training programs support and develop the next generation of cancer researchers and clinicians.

The Simmons Cancer Center is among only 30 U.S. cancer research centers to be named a National Clinical Trials Network Lead Academic Participating Site, a prestigious new designation by the NCI, and the only cancer center in North Texas to be so designated. The designation and associated funding is designed to bolster the cancer center’s clinical cancer research for adults and to provide patients access to cancer research trials sponsored by the NCI, where promising new drugs often are tested. 

About UT Southwestern Medical Center
UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty includes many distinguished members, including six who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. The faculty of more than 2,700 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in 40 specialties to about 92,000 hospitalized patients and oversee approximately 2.1 million outpatient visits a year.


Media Contact: Lori Sundeen-Soderbergh

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