2015 NCI Outstanding Investigator Award Recipients

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The first class of National Cancer Institute (NCI) Outstanding Investigator Award recipients showcases the cutting edge of oncologic research and the 43 investigators behind it.

NCI’s Outstanding Investigator Award supports accomplished leaders in cancer research, who are providing significant contributions toward understanding cancer and developing applications that may lead to a breakthrough in biomedical, behavioral, or clinical cancer research. The Award provides up to $600,000 in direct costs per year for 7 years, allowing substantial time for funded investigators to take greater risks and be more adventurous in their research.

Below is the complete list of 2015 recipients:

Steven Artandi, MD, PhD

Professor of Medicine (Hematology) and Biochemistry, Stanford University

Research focus: Addressing the target cell populations from which cancers emerge—the cell of origin—and determining how these early beginnings are linked to one of the most fundamental properties of cancer cells: the acquisition of immortal proliferative properties.

Laura D. Attardi, PhD

Professor, Departments of Radiation Oncology and Genetics, Stanford University School of Medicine

Research focus: Deconstructing the transcriptional programs through which wild-type p53 suppresses cancer and through which missense mutant p53 exerts gain of function effects to promote cancer; and using integrated genetic, genomic, cell biologic, and biochemical approaches to define the p53 transcriptional programs critical for p53-mediated suppression of pancreatic cancer.

Darrell Bigner, MD, PhD

Director, The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University

Research focus: Oncolytic polovirus, immunotoxin, and checkpoint inhibitor therapy of gliomas. Intended outcome will represent paradigm shifts in glioblastoma multiforme cells, with treatment resulting in significant increases in high quality of life and overall survival.

John C. Byrd, MD

Professor of Medicine and D. Warren Brown Chair of Leukemia Research, The Ohio State University

Research focus: Exploring basic and translational biologic questions to develop novel immunologic and targeted therapies for acute myeloid leukemia and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Andrea Califano, PhD

Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Chemical Systems Biology, Columbia University Medical Center

Research focus: Developing a novel methodologic framework integrating both experimental and computational approaches to systematically elucidate the mechanisms by which tumor heterogeneity drives tumor progression and emergence of drug resistance.

Simon R. Cherry, PhD

Distinguished Professor, Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Radiology, University of California, Davis

Research focus: Discovering new opportunities for cancer imaging and cancer therapy based on radiation and photonics.

Craig Crews, PhD

Lewis B. Cullman Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, Yale University

Research focus: Contributing toward developing the new field of “controlled proteostasis” and helping to develop the Proteolysis Targeting Chimerae (PROTACs) technology further to target truly undruggable proteins that are key oncogenic drivers.

Carlo Croce, MD

Chair of the Department of Molecular Virology, Immunology, and Medical Genetics, The Ohio State University Medical Center

Research focus: Identifying genetic and genomic alterations that cause human cancer in order to develop novel targeted treatments for different human tumors.

Michael Fiore, MD, PhD, MPH, MBA

Professor of Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Research focus: electronic health records and using groundbreaking research methods to reengineer health-care delivery systems to efficiently organize and deliver state-of-the-art treatment to smokers visiting primary care settings.

Levi Garraway, MD, PhD

Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Research focus: Researching the spectrum of resistance mechanisms for any given cancer therapeutic modality, which could coalesce onto a much smaller set of critical downstream effects or “nodes.” Focus on discerning the mechanisms operating within these “points of coalescence” to yield new insights into oncogenic dependencies and illuminate guiding principles for the design of novel therapeutic combinations.

Jean Gautier, PhD

Professor of Genetics and Development, Columbia University Medical Center

Research focus: Building a map of protein-protein interactions for repair factors common to multiple repair pathways and identifying protein-protein interactions that are specifically enhanced or reduced following treatment.

Amato Giaccia, PhD

Professor of Radiation Oncology, Stanford University

Research focus: Exploring the molecular mechanisms governing lipid homeostasis in cancer, characterizing their contribution to tumorigenesis, and identifying ways that they can be therapeutically targeted in solid tumors.

Kun-Liang Guan, PhD

Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pharmacology, University of California, San Diego

Research focus: Obtaining a comprehensive molecular understanding of the mTORC1 and Hippo pathways under normal physiologic conditions and elucidating how dysregulation of these pathways contributes to tumorigenesis.

Stephen Hursting, PhD, MPH

Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Nutrition Research Institute; Director of the Division of Nutritional Biochemistry; member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Research focus: Utilizing a transdisciplinary approach combining well-characterized preclinical models with expertise in nutrition, metabolism, and molecular biology in partnership with strong translational collaborations to identify new biomarkers, developing effective interventions to break obesity-cancer links, and reducing the burden of obesity-associated cancer.

Rakesh K. Jain, PhD

A.W. Cook Professor of Tumor Biology (Radiation Oncology) and Director, Edwin L. Steele Laboratory for Tumor Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Research focus: Dissecting the microenvironment of pediatric brain tumors with the goal of improving existing therapies and developing new ones, using powerful, noninvasive, high-resolution imaging technologies.

Thomas Kensler, PhD

Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, University of Pittsburgh

Research focus: Chemoprevention, which may offer practical opportunities to reduce risks associated with “unavoidable” or largely intractable exposures, using natural products that target the Nrf2 cytoprotective pathway.

Mary-Claire King, PhD

Professor of Genome Sciences and of Medicine (Medical Genetics), University of Washington

Research focus: Discovering new mutational mechanisms and new genes in extended kindreds severely affected by breast or ovarian cancer with normal sequences of all known breast and ovarian cancer genes.

Hartmut Land, PhD

Chairman of the Department of Biomedical Genetics, Director of Research, and Codirector of the Wilmot Cancer Institute, University of Rochester Medical Center

Research focus: Exploring the hypothesis that cooperation response genes are critical to sustaining core features of a malignant phenotype shared between diverse cancers and identifying key regulatory pathways and circuits related to the activity of these genes that control cancer cell homeostasis.

Caryn Lerman, PhD

Mary W. Calkins Professor of Psychiatry, Deputy Director of the Abramson Cancer Center, University of Pennsylvania

Research focus: Merging concepts and tools from the fields of cognitive neuroscience and behavioral science to develop and evaluate novel neuroscience-based interventions to promote sustainable behavior change for cancer prevention.

Maciej Lesniak, MD

Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Research focus: Therapeutic targeting of malignant glioma stem cells, guided by the hypothesis that novel nonviral gene therapies can be designed to arrest these cells’ fate in gliomas by suppressing the master neurodevelopmental transcriptional factors that control these cells’ phenotypes.

Timothy Ley, MD

Lewis T. and Rosalind B. Apple Professor of Oncology in the Department of Medicine, Washington University in St. Louis

Research focus: Exploring the hypothesis that a complete understanding of the consequences of initiating mutations is required to fully understand acute myeloid leukemia (AML) pathogenesis and focusing on the therapeutic approaches against initiating mutations with the potential of providing long-term benefits for patients with AML.

Xihong Lin, PhD

Chair and Henry Pickering Walcott Professor of Biostatistics and Professor of Statistics, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Research focus: Developing and applying statistical and computational methods for analysis of whole-genome sequencing association studies; investigation of gene-environment interactions; integrative analysis; risk prediction using genetic, genomic, and environmental data; and analysis of large administrative databases, to advance genetic and genomic epidemiology, precision prevention, and precision medicine for cancer.

Ian Macara, PhD

Chair of the Cell & Developmental Biology Department, Vanderbilt University

Research focus: Understanding how cell context determines phenotype, and determining the roles of mitotic spindle misorientation in cancer initiation, tumor suppression by myoepithelial cells, and subversion of mechanical tension signaling by breast cancer cells.

Jeanne Mandelblatt, MD, MPH

Associate Director for Population Sciences at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, Georgetown University

Research focus: Using a biobehavioral framework to conduct population sciences research at the intersection of cancer and aging. Focus on shifting the paradigms of research and care for the growing older population; determining whether biologic age markers can identify survivors at greatest risk for functional declines; informing future intervention trials; and expanding the limited number of cancer and aging researchers.

Brendan D. Manning, PhD

Professor of Genetics and Complex Diseases, Harvard School of Public Health

Research focus: Defining the wiring and functions of a nutrient-sensing signaling network (the PI3K-mTOR network), focusing on the critical role of this network in influencing the sensitivity and resistance of tumors to targeted cancer therapies and in tumor cell metabolism.

Joshua Mendell, MD, PhD

Professor in the Molecular Biology Department, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Research focus: Analyzing miRNA functions in normal physiology and cancer in vivo; investigating the regulation of miRNA processing in normal development and tumorigenesis; elucidating lncRNA functions in normal physiology and cancer; and application of CRISPR-based genomic editing to illuminate noncoding RNA functions in cells and animals and to discover and validate novel regulators of malignancy-associated phenotypes.

Matthew Meyerson, MD, PhD

Professor of Pathology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Research focus: Understanding the mechanism of how significant alterations in the DNA of lung cancers—such as loss or gain of chromosomes, genetic mutations, and genomic amplification—cause the disease.

Jeffrey Miller, MD

Deputy Director, Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota

Research focus: Developing strategies to enhance the antitumor activity of endogenous natural killer cells in patients with solid tumor malignancies and developing off-the-shelf reagents to activate these cells, overcome inhibitory receptor signaling, and target them to specific tumor ­antigens.

Shuji Ogino, MD, PhD, MS

Professor of Pathology and Professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Research focus: Conducting molecular pathologic epidemiology (MPE) research on colorectal cancer omics, intratumor heterogeneity, and immunity, to gain insights on roles of environmental, diet, lifestyle, and genetic factors; grow the International MPE Meeting Series with a goal of making “the STROBE-MPE guideline”; and build new integrative interdisciplinary models including causal inference-MPE, immuno-MPE, social-MPE, and MPE-health communication research.

Paolo Pier Pandolfi, MD, PhD

Director of the Cancer Center and Cancer Research Institute, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Research focus: Contributing to the study of critical cancer genes as paradigms for tumor suppression, through the development of a second generation of models and tools in order to explore how they function in leukemia and other cancers and to develop and test new cancer therapies.


Marcus Peter, PhD

Professor in Medicine-Hematology/Oncology, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Research focus: Researching death induced by CD95R/L elimination, its mechanisms, related mechanisms, and the development of a novel form of cancer therapy that is based on targeting tumor suppressors rather than oncogenes.

Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD

Professor of Medicine and Medical Oncology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Research focus: Exploring the hypothesis that clonal heterogeneity within tumors drives metastatic progression and therapeutic resistance, which could improve the clinical management of patients with breast cancer.

Tannishtha Reya, PhD

Professor in the Departments of Pharmacology and Medicine, University of California, San Diego

Research focus: Combining strategies for the design of early detection tools with an understanding of cancer progression from benign lesions to a malignant state, enabling development of new therapies that can be delivered early in disease.


Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD

Professor of Medicine, Hematology-Oncology, University of California, Los Angeles

Research focus: Tumor immunotherapy for melanoma using checkpoint blockade alone or in combination with BRAF inhibitors and gene-engineered adoptive cell transfer therapy.

Jeremy Rich, MD

Chairman in the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute

Research focus: Investigating the role of mitochondrial dynamics and metabolic control in the maintenance of brain tumor stem cells, regulating the epigenetic stem cell state and as a therapeutic modality; and providing an enhanced model of glioma hierarchy and informing the development of novel clinical trials.

Ali Shilatifard, PhD

Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Research focus: Full molecular and biochemical characterization of the COMPASS family of histone H3K4 methylases in the regulation of gene expression and during development, and determining how their mutations contribute to the pathogenesis of a large number of human cancers, including solid tumors and hematologic malignancies.

Paul Sondel, MD, PhD

Reed and Carolee Walker Professor of Pediatrics, Human Oncology, and Genetics, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Research focus: Developing preclinical and clinical regimens that combine tumor-reactive monoclonal antibody–based therapeutics and other off-the-shelf agents along with genetic evaluation of innate immune function in order to decrease the morbidity and mortality of cancer worldwide.

Daniel G. Tenen, MD

Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess
Medical Center

Research focus: Exploring novel areas of RNA biology and investigating their role in cancer, as well as potential development of more specific therapeutic modalities, using acute myeloid leukemia as a model disease.

Geoffrey Wahl, PhD

Professor, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Research focus: Determining the molecular programs that drive embryonic mammary cells into the stem cell state and using gene-editing technologies to generate a new mouse model that will enable the lab to identify fMaSCs in real time based on the cytokeratins they express.

Loren D. Walensky, MD, PhD

Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School

Research focus: Elucidating the fundamental interaction mechanisms of BCL-2 family apoptotic proteins to advance new therapeutic strategies for reactivating cell death in human cancer; applying multidisciplinary approaches to define the conformational activation and homo-oligomerization mechanism(s) of BAX and BAK; characterizing a novel mechanism for BAX and BAK suppression by the BH4 domains of antiapoptotic BCL-2 proteins; and investigating a new allosteric mechanism that controls the apoptotic functionalities of BCL-2 proteins.

Michael A. White, PhD

Professor in the Department of Cell Biology, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Research focus: Investigating conditional vulnerabilities that arise as a consequence of oncogene expression and tumor evolution.

Jin Zhang, PhD

Professor in the Department of Pharmacology, University of California, San Diego

Research focus: Developing enabling technologies to probe the active molecules in their native environment and characterizing how these active molecules change in cancer, to lead to new ways of studying dysregulated molecular machinery in cancer. ■