Velocity Fellows Receive Pilot Grants to Accelerate Progress in Cancer Research

May 31, 2023

Five Columbia University faculty members have been named Velocity Fellows and awarded pilot grants to support early-stage cancer research. The awards are made possible by proceeds from Velocity: Columbia’s Ride to End Cancer to benefit the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Beginning in July 2023, each awardee will receive a one-year $90,000 grant to fund research personnel and supplies. Velocity Fellowship applications are reviewed and selected by the HICCC.
The new Velocity Fellows are: Elisa E. Konofagou, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering and radiology at Columbia University and member of the HICCC Precision Oncology and Systems Biology program; Jack Grinband, PhD, assistant professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University; Edmond M. Chan, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S) and member of the HICCC Cancer Genomics and Epigenomics program; Juan Manuel Schvartzman, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at VP&S and member of the HICCC Cancer Genomics and Epigenomics program; and Jeanine Genkinger, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and member of the HICCC Cancer Population Science program.  
Velocity began in 2017 as a cycling event to raise money for cutting-edge research and expert patient care based at the HICCC. This year, the fundraiser celebrates seven years of impact, encompassing 4,000-plus participants who have covered more than 73,000 miles with one goal in mind: to help Columbia solve cancer. Their efforts have resulted in over $7 million raised, 100% of which goes to support expert patient care and life-changing research at HICCC. This new class of Velocity Fellows bring the total number of awardees to 24.  

The Winning Projects:  

“Tumor Mechanical Properties For Predicting Breast Cancer Treatment Response” 
Lead Investigator: Elisa E. Konofagou, PhD 
Co-Investigators: Julia E. McGuinness, MD, assistant professor of medicine; Richard S. Ha, MD, associate professor of radiology, Md Murad Hossain, PhD, associate research scientist 
In the United States, 1 out of 8 women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. For women with locally advanced breast cancer or certain breast cancer subtypes, neoadjuvant chemotherapy is a standard treatment option. Change in tumor size is routinely used to monitor a patient’s response to treatment, but tumor size reduction requires several weeks to months to manifest. Changes in mechanical properties — such as elasticity and viscosity — occur before tumor debulking. Konofagou and collaborators plan to investigate an ultrasound method, known as multi-parametric harmonic motion imaging, to assess the change in tumor viscoelastic properties due to chemotherapy.  

“Using time domain diffuse optical tomography (TD-DOT) to measure BOLD asynchrony in glioblastoma” 
Lead Investigator: Jack Grinband, PhD 
Co-Investigators: Ken Shepard, PhD, professor of electrical engineering and biomedical engineering; Peter D. Canoll, MD, PhD, professor of pathology & cell biology; Jeffrey N. Bruce, MD, professor of neurological surgery; Fabio M. Iwamoto, MD, associate professor of neurology 
The Grinband Lab has developed an functional MRI-based approach called BOLD asynchrony that can characterize tumor burden in patients with glioma. However, BOLD asynchrony requires MRI imaging, which is expensive, technically demanding, invasive, and is administered infrequently. The Shepard Lab has recently developed time domain, diffuse optical tomography (TD-DOT) imaging arrays that have much higher spatial resolution and depth of view than conventional optical methods. Grinband, Shepard, and collaborators will test the feasibility of TD-DOT as an inexpensive, non-invasive, and easy-to-use tool to detect tumor burden and track progression in the vast majority of glioma patients.  

“Potentiating antibody-based therapies in gastro/gastroesophageal cancers” 
Lead Investigator: Edmond M Chan, MD 
Co-Investigators: Jellert Gaublomme, PhD, assistant professor of biological sciences 
Despite the recent successes of monoclonal antibodies in the treatment of advanced gastric and gastroesophageal junction cancer, the median survival benefit is measured in months, rather than cures. With gastric cancer ranking as the fourth leading cause of cancer death worldwide, there is still a pressing need to develop more effective therapies. Chan aims to build upon the momentum of monoclonal antibodies by functionally interrogating tumor cells for drug targets that enhance the HER2 antibody trastuzumab, with a focus towards mechanisms that enhance antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity.  

“Levering metabolism-dependent synthetic lethalities between epigenetics and replication stress in cancer” 
Lead Investigator: Juan Manuel Schvartzman, MD, PhD 
Colorectal cancer is the third most common malignancy in the United States for both men and women. Immunotherapy has revolutionized the treatment of colorectal cancer with microsatellite instability, but this feature is only present in roughly 15% of cases. Paradigm-shifting approaches to identify effective therapies for colorectal cancer are very much in need. Schvartzman hypothesizes that metabolic stressors like hypoxia and ischemia can inhibit histone lysine demethylases, restrict chromatin accessibility, and generate replication stress. He sees this process as a potential therapeutic opportunity to expand the clinical utility of PARP and ATR inhibitors, as well as other agents whose use is currently limited to rare genomic subsets.

“Supportive TReatment to Improve Vitality and Energy (STRIVE) Cohort“ 
Lead Investigator: Jeanine Genkinger, PhD 
Co-Investigators: Silvia Martins, MD, PhD, professor of epidemiology; Jason D. Wright, MD, associate professor of gynecologic oncology; Melissa Accordino, MD, associate professor of medicine; Katherine M. Keyes, PhD, professor of epidemiology; Lauren Houghton, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology

Recently, due to enactment and implementation of medical and recreational marijuana laws, use of cannabis has increased in the United States, particularly for symptom management for several conditions. Due to their symptomatology, patients with cancer may benefit from use of cannabis and cannabinoids. However, detailed data describing the overall use of cannabis, beliefs about the use of cannabis, and use in diverse populations are largely lacking. Genkinger and collaborators will assess the feasibility of creating a prospective multi-ethnic cohort of patients with cancer in order to identify the benefits and harms of cannabis and cannabinoid use.