Innovator Award Won by Kenneth Tsai, MD, PhD, for Plan to Map Molecular Path to Skin Cancer

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A proposal to examine the cellular journey from normal skin to precancerous lesion to skin cancer earned Kenneth Tsai, MD, PhD, the Sixth Annual Landon Foundation–AACR Innovator Award for Cancer Prevention Research at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting, held recently in Washington, DC.

An Assistant Professor in the Departments of Dermatology and Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Tsai said the project will provide rare insight into the process that starts with normal skin and progresses to squamous cell carcinoma.

The award is one of six earned by MD Anderson faculty at this year’s AACR meeting.

“Skin is ideally suited for this type of analysis because it’s easily accessible for sampling. Furthermore, squamous cell carcinoma and its precancerous lesions are relatively common and well-defined clinically and histologically,” Dr. Tsai said. But “we don’t have a good understanding of the genetic events that occur along the way,” he added.

Identifying Targets for Prevention

“By identifying important genetic differences, we hope to find biomarkers of risk for the precancerous lesions—actinic keratoses—and for skin cancer progression,” Dr. Tsai said. “We ultimately aim to identify targets for chemoprevention at all stages and develop therapies for them.”

In addition to identifying and effectively treating those at the greatest risk, another benefit would be identification of those who don’t need intensive treatment or surveillance.

Working with fellow dermatologists at MD Anderson and several other Houston practices, Dr. Tsai is collecting samples of all three types of tissue—normal, precancerous, and carcinomatous—from each patient. This is a key advantage, because comparing different tissue types among different people would introduce greater variability into his results.

The award, for $100,000 spread over 2 years, is one of three Landon awards given annually. MD Anderson scientist Guang Peng, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Cancer Prevention, won the 2012 award for cancer prevention research.

“I thought of this project almost 2 years but had no resources to begin,” Dr. Tsai said “Then I received a seed grant from the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment, which enabled me to get going and provided the data we needed to compete for the Landon award.” 

The Duncan Family Institute is part of MD Anderson’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences. The project is a collaboration among basic scientists, bioinformatics and gene-sequencing experts, and dermatologists. ■