The UT Southwestern President’s Research Council (PRC) has selected radiation oncologist Dr. Todd Aguilera and neuroscientist Dr. Helen Lai for Distinguished Researcher Awards that will be used to investigate new immunotherapy treatments for pancreatic cancer and research into neural underpinnings of pain, respectively.
The annual awards – which provide research funding of $75,000 to each of these faculty members – are designed to honor and help further the work of early career researchers who are emerging leaders in their fields.
“We are grateful to the President’s Research Council for its support of the promising work that Dr. Aguilera is doing to advance treatment options for pancreatic cancer and that Dr. Lai is pursuing to better understand the causes and perceptions of pain,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern.
Dr. Aguilera, Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology, studies why some cancers, in particular pancreatic cancers, are resistant to current immunotherapies.
“We are taking some risks using advanced and expensive technologies with the ultimate goal of discovering therapeutic targets and developing therapies for difficult-to-treat cancers,” he said.
Dr. Lai, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, investigates the neural underpinnings of human sensations of pain and awareness of one’s own body position, called proprioception. Understanding the mechanisms involved in pain sensation could one day lead to the development of nonopioid pain relievers, she said.
“It is an incredible honor to receive the PRC Distinguished Researcher Award,” Dr. Lai said. “It comes at a critical time in my early career, when I am trying to develop my research program.”
Dr. Todd Aguilera
Dr. Aguilera, recruited to UT Southwestern last June, also received a prestigious Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members award, which helps attract early career researchers with the potential to make major contributions in cancer research to Texas.
At UC San Diego, he studied under the late Nobel Laureate Roger Tsien, who developed a way to illuminate various proteins within a cell with different colors of fluorescent light. While working on his Ph.D. in Dr. Tsien’s lab, Dr. Aguilera helped develop molecules that can be activated by enzymes found in tumors to deliver a fluorescent signal, making the tumors more visible to surgeons. A molecule based on that research is now in clinical trials.
Dr. Aguilera went on to Stanford University, where as a resident and postdoctoral fellow he studied factors in tumors that make them less susceptible to the body’s anti-tumor immune responses or to immunotherapy. His work identified a new role for a molecule expressed by tumors that suppresses immune responses and he helped develop a biologic molecule designed to target T cells of the immune system to more effectively attack cancer cells.
“We are extremely fortunate to recruit an outstanding translational scientist such as Dr. Aguilera,” said Dr. Hak Choy, Chair of Radiation Oncology. “His extraordinary training under Nobel Laureate Roger Tsien and his expertise in the fields of molecular engineering, molecular imaging, the tumor microenvironment, and tumor immunology complement the research already underway in the Department.”
Dr. Helen Lai
In 2015, Dr. Lai was senior author of a study published in Cell Reports that outlined her discovery of an unappreciated function of spinal cord neurons that relay proprioceptive information. More recently, she has developed mouse models to understand the molecular basis underlying painlessness.
Dr. Lai joined UT Southwestern as a postdoctoral fellow in 2006 after receiving her Ph.D. in biophysics from UC San Francisco. In 2012, she was named a Sara and Frank McKnight Fellow, which supports research by young scientists. This year, she was named an Award in Pain Scholar by the Rita Allen Foundation. (See related story.)
Dr. Lai is now working to understand the neural networks responsible for the sensations of pain and proprioception and investigating the development, circuitry, and function of the nerves behind these sensations. Insights gained into the sense of limb and body position could help doctors understand the loss of this sense in patients with traumatic injuries, degenerative diseases of the nervous system, and damage to the peripheral nervous system.
“Helen is fearless in tackling new problems and rigorous in her execution. She is quickly becoming one of the leaders in the somatosensory biology field,” said Dr. Joseph Takahashi, Chair of Neuroscience and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
The President’s Research Council, made up of community members interested in learning about and advancing medical research at UT Southwestern, raises funding to support the work of new faculty investigators. Membership includes invitations to four lectures a year given by leading UT Southwestern researchers, as well as an annual dinner honoring awardees. For information about membership or upcoming events, visit engage.utsouthwestern.edu/prc or contact the UT Southwestern Office of Development and Alumni Relations at 214-648-2344