The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy Awards $2.75 Million to Support Six Early-Career Researchers

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The parker institute for cancer immunotherapy (PICI) recently announced awards for six early-career researchers through the Parker Scholars, Parker Bridge Fellows, and Parker Senior Fellows programs. They are receiving a total of up to $2.75 million in funding to advance their research in profound ways, alongside 14 current awardees and the PICI’s constellation of immunotherapy experts.

The PICI selected the early-career researchers from leading research institutions in its network, including City of Hope, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai, University of California Los Angeles, and University of California San Francisco. Along with financial support, these scientists will have the opportunity to collaborate with pioneers in the field through retreats, workshops, and events. They will also receive access to cutting-edge tools and technologies, as well as early data from clinical trials and prepublished papers.

“The immuno-oncology field has incredible potential to make cancer curable, and these early-career researchers will help PICI transform the way cancer research is done,” said Lisa ­Butterfield, Vice President, Research, and Development at PICI. “They bring open minds and fresh approaches to the toughest challenges in the field, which are grounded in their early training in some of the best labs in the country. The PICI’s model gives them a collaborative environment where they can work across institutions to move big, bold ideas forward more quickly.”

Awardees and Research Focus

Here are this year’s awardees and their research focus:

Cansu Cimen Bozkus, PhD, Parker Bridge Fellow at the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai, is bridging basic and translational science working with scientists and clinicians. She is focused on using immune responses against tumor-specific antigens to develop new therapies.

Sharareh (Sherri) Gholamin, MD, Parker Scholar at City of Hope, is developing new treatment approaches for tumors that are resistant to current immunotherapies, particularly with the gut microbiome. She will explore new immunotherapy combinations with chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapies to overcome resistance to current treatments for patients with brain cancer.

Kelly Kersten, PhD, Parker Scholar at the University of California, San Francisco, focuses on how antitumor T cells behave and become dysfunctional in cancer. In particular, she wants to understand how myeloid cells, and more specifically tumor-associated macrophages, are involved in the onset of T-cell exhaustion. Her ultimate goal is to identify novel therapeutic approaches to target macrophages to reinvigorate T cells to treat cancer.

Sydney Lu, MD, PhD, Parker Bridge Fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, uses checkpoint inhibitor therapies in difficult-to-treat cancers such as lung, bladder, and kidney. He plans to continue his work to make cancer cells more recognizable to the immune system.

Cristina Puig Saus, PhD, Parker Senior Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, is focusing on how T cells respond to mutations in tumors after checkpoint inhibitor treatment. She aims to unpack the similarities and differences of T-cell responses in patients who are or are not responsive to treatment and then use these findings to design new, more effective treatments.

Jennifer Wu, PhD candidate, Parker Scholar at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is developing in vitro models to understand why T cells become exhausted and why current therapies can only partially reverse exhaustion. Since immunotherapy does not yet work for all patients, understanding exhaustion, why it develops and how to reverse it, may help more patients. With the PICI, she will build on this model and use it to discover novel therapies.

Dr. Bozkus described the breadth of the programs best: “It’s more than just a grant. Financial support is a great help in many ways, but being involved with the community is the real privilege about PICI’s program. It’s the network of peers and the pioneers collaborating together at the forefront of the immunology field that I’m most excited about.”

Dr. Lu also shared similar sentiments: “PICI has assembled an exceptional team of directors, mentors, and scientists. By being part of the PICI network, I’m eager to get a bird’s-eye view of the most ­cutting-edge work happening in immunotherapy while also exchanging ideas and getting input on my research to accelerate it forward.”

About the Programs

This was one of the first initiatives PICI launched in 2016 to invest in the future leaders in the field. It is core to PICI’s vision to support promising work being done by the most ambitious early-career researchers.

The Parker Scholars program supports graduate students and researchers entering their first postdoctoral appointment focused on high-impact, high-risk projects. The Parker Bridge Fellows program supports senior postdoctoral investigators as they transition to faculty positions. The Parker Senior Fellows program supports investigators who have recently received their MD or PhD and are ready to establish a laboratory or independent program in cancer immunotherapy.

Awardees are selected from a pool of impressive candidates across PICI’s partner research institutions. They were chosen on the basis of academic achievement, scientific approach, innovation, the significance of the proposed work to advance the field, and the promise of their research to advance the mission and goals of PICI.