Cancer Researchers Win Seed Funding From Velocity

July 30, 2020

Four Columbia cancer researchers have been selected to share seed funding raised from Velocity, Columbia’s Ride to End Cancer. More than 1,000 riders, volunteers, and supporters joined together last fall to set a new record, raising $1.5 million, to support cancer research at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC).

The new class of Velocity Fellows are Benjamin Izar, MD, PhD, assistant professor of hematology and oncology at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeon (VP&S); Minah Kim, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and cell biology at VP&S; Chao Lu, PhD, assistant professor of genetics and development at VP&S; and Parisa Tehranifar, DrPH, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health.

“The Velocity Fellows are focusing on research projects that will really help drive translational research, pushing discoveries to patient care and/or the community to advance cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, improve the health and well-being of cancer survivors, and influence public health policy,” says Anil K. Rustgi, MD, director of the HICCC and Irving Professor of Medicine at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “Their interdisciplinary work in the biology of cancer and in novel therapeutics will greatly contribute to the lives of our cancer patients.”

To drive the research forward, applicants were asked to put together a team with interdisciplinary skills and expertise, bridging together experts from the clinic and the lab. Each fellow will receive $100,000 in grant money to fund their projects.

Selected by a committee of 14 peers and from a pool of 17 applicants, the Velocity Fellows will use the funding to support the following research:

“Dissecting Melanoma Brain Metastases by Molecular, Spatial, and Functional Single-Cell Profiling”
Lead Investigator: Benjamin Izar, MD, PhD

Dr. Izar studies the development of niche-specific metastasis of cancers and uses innovative single-cell technology to investigate drug resistance. Dr. Izar, a medical oncologist who sees patients with both early stage and advanced melanoma, will lead a multi-disciplinary team including Hanina Hibshoosh, MD, an expert in diagnostic and molecular pathology, Jeffrey Bruce, MD, a leading neurosurgeon with specific expertise in complex surgeries of brain tumors and skull base tumors, and Peter Canoll, MD, PhD, an expert in neuropathological evaluation of brain tumors. The team aims to uncover the molecular and genomic underpinnings of melanoma brain metastases  and understand why patients with advanced disease are associated with poor prognosis and drug resistance. By building on preliminary data, Dr. Izar hopes to better define the ecosystems of brain metastases in melanoma and ultimately, pave the way for a cancer-wide, high-resolution examination of brain metastases as a unique resource for researchers.

“Targeting Vascular Abnormalities to Overcome Immune Checkpoint Inhibitor Resistance in Metastatic Melanoma”
Lead Investigator: Minah Kim, PhD

Dr. Kim explores the mechanism of immune and vascular changes to overcome resistance to immunotherapy. As a Velocity Fellow, Dr. Kim will investigate the benefits of immune checkpoint inhibitors, which notably increase melanoma patients' survival rates, among other malignancies. Evidence suggests that increased tumor vascular destabilization impairs the infiltration of immune effector cells to tumors, leading to possible drug resistance. Dr. Kim, a basic scientist, is working with Richard Carvajal, MD, a medical oncologist and leading expert in melanoma and novel therapeutics, and Regina Santella, PhD, an expert in the use of biomarkers of cancer risk and early diagnosis. The team hopes to identify potential biomarkers to predict therapeutic outcomes in patients receiving checkpoint therapy.

“Expanding Epigenetic Therapies for Diffuse Large B-cell Lymphoma”
Lead Investigator: Chao Lu, PhD

Dr. Lu’s project will investigate potential new therapeutic options for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL), the most common type of lymphoma affecting nearly 30,000 patients annually. Insights into the molecular pathogenesis of DLBCL have divided this disease into two molecular subtypes: germinal center (GC) and activated B-cell (ABC) subtypes. Recently, misregulation of chromatin, material that makes up a chromosome and an area of expertise for Dr. Lu, has been implicated in the pathogenesis of GC-DLBCL. To date, there are no targeted approaches for patients with GC-DLBCL and there is no method for predicting response to epigenetic therapies that seek to modify gene regulation for these patients. Dr. Lu, a basic scientist, is working with Jennifer Amengual, MD, a medical oncologist with expertise in laboratory and clinical research. They aim to provide a framework for biomarker-guided precision epigenetic therapies for GC-derived lymphoma, and hope to identify novel biomarkers and treatment approaches that could be tested in patients who harbor this specific biology.

“Reducing Overscreening and Supporting Informed Mammography Screening Decisions in Older Women”
Lead Investigator: Parisa Tehranifar, DrPH

Professional guidelines do not support routine mammography screening in older women (≥ 75 years), and recommend that older women are informed about the benefits and harms of mammography. Yet, older women continue to undergo routine frequent screenings, including at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and are seldom informed or engaged in decision making around mammography with their healthcare providers. Led by Dr. Tehranifar, DrPH, a breast cancer epidemiologist and cancer health disparities researcher, the multi-investigator team includes Rachel Shelton, ScD, MPH, a social and behavioral scientist with expertise in implementation science, health equity, and community-engaged research, and Nathalie Moise, MD, MS, implementation science expert, mental health researcher, and primary care provider dedicated to treating predominately low income, racial minority and older adults. Their project will assess strategies currently in place for shared-decision making among low-income and racial and ethnically diverse populations in our community, and will investigate—through interviews and focus groups with providers and decision makers—how to reduce mammography overuse that poses potential harm to older women and how to culturally adapt existing evidence-based decisions for mammography screenings.