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Developer of new cancer drugs is honored with international award

Medicine@Yale, 2010 - Jan Feb


Joseph Schlessinger, Ph.D., chair and William H. Prusoff Professor of Pharmacology, has been named winner of the 2010 Pezcoller Foundation–AACR International Award for Cancer Research.

The award, established in 1998, recognizes a scientist “of international renown who has made a major scientific discovery in basic cancer research or who has made significant contributions to translational cancer research.”

As the winner of the award, Schlessinger will give two lectures on his work, one at the 101st annual meeting of the AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) in Washington, D.C., in April, and the 5th Annual Stanley J. Korsmeyer Lecture in Padua, Italy, in May. Schlessinger will then receive the award—which includes a prize of €75,000 and a commemorative plaque—at a ceremony in Trento, Italy, on May 7.

In a scientific career that has spanned three decades, Schlessinger has discerned the mechanism of action of a family of surface receptors and revealed their roles as critical drivers of a variety of cancers. These studies provided the conceptual foundation for the development of tyrosine kinase inhibitors as successful new drugs for the treatment of many cancers.

Schlessinger has cofounded three biotechnology companies and served as an advisor to several others—work that led to a drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in January 2006 for advanced kidney cancer and for a stomach cancer known as gastrointestinal stromal tumor, or GIST. That drug, now marketed by Pfizer as Sutent, and other drugs based on Schlessinger’s discoveries are being tested as treatments for more common renal cancers, as well as breast and other cancers.

The December 18, 2009 issue of the journal Science featured a news article on the remarkable clinical results obtained in metastatic melanoma with PLX4032, a new compound developed by Plexxikon, a biotech company Schlessinger cofounded. In a Phase I trial, PLX4032 had an unprecedented 70 percent response rate in treating the disease. PLX4032, which has moved into Phase III trials, has generated excitement because it appears to selectively target a cancer-causing mutation of a gene involved in metastatic melanoma without affecting normal versions of the gene, findings which suggest that other cancer-causing mutations may also be precisely targeted.

The Pezcoller Foundation was established in 1980 by Alessio Pezcoller, an Italian medical professor and surgeon. In addition to sponsoring this award, the foundation also sponsors a series of symposia, publishes a journal, and supports awards for early-career scientists from Europe who have submitted highly rated abstracts for presentation at the AACR’s annual meeting. The AACR was founded by a group of 11 scientists in 1907, and now has nearly 27,000 members in more than 60 countries.

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