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Damon Runyon awards $3.2M to innovative early-career scientists

January 18, 2023

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation announced eight recipients of the 2023 Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award, established to support “high-risk, high-reward” ideas with the potential to significantly impact the prevention, diagnosis, or treatment of cancer. We are pleased to announce that Luisa F. Escobar-Hoyos, PhD, and Mandar Muzumdar, MD, have both received Stage 2 continuation support. This is granted to Innovators who demonstrated significant progress on their proposed research during the first two years of the award. 

The Innovation Award is designed to provide funding to exceptionally creative thinkers with a revolutionary idea who lack sufficient preliminary data to obtain traditional funding. The awardees are selected through a highly competitive and rigorous process by a scientific committee comprised of leading cancer researchers with their own history of innovative work.  

Luisa F. Escobar-Hoyos, PhD: Damon Runyon-William Raveis Charitable Fund Innovator
“Understanding RNA splicing in tumor-cell adaptation and anti-tumor immunity”

Current pancreatic cancer chemotherapies are not effective, and targeted therapies are only applicable in about 5% of cases. Furthermore, pancreatic cancers cause immune cell stress, limiting the success of immunotherapies in this disease. Using animal models and tumor samples from pancreatic cancer patients, Dr. Escobar-Hoyos has discovered that changes in RNA splicing, a process that controls protein diversity in cells, are crucial for pancreatic cancer development, therapy resistance, and disruption of anti-tumor immunity. She plans to dissect the molecular role of RNA splicing in pancreatic cancer, which likely drives the disease's lethality. She seeks to develop a novel anti-RNA splicing therapy with dual action—a targeted therapy against tumor cells coupled with an immunotherapy to restore immune cell anti-tumor activity—to more effectively treat pancreatic cancer patients.

Mandar D. Muzumdar, MD, Yale University School of Medicine
“Targeting endocrine-exocrine signaling in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma progression”

Obesity is a major risk factor for over a dozen cancer types, including pancreatic cancer, the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Despite the rising prevalence of obesity worldwide, surprisingly little is known about how it promotes cancer development. Using animal models that closely mimic human pancreatic cancer, Dr. Muzumdar showed that obesity could provoke abnormal signals sent by the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas to their neighboring tumor-forming cells. With this project, he aims to understand how these hormones are induced and act to drive cancer formation in obesity. Targeting pancreatic hormone signaling could provide a new approach for the prevention and treatment of pancreatic cancer and other obesity-associated cancers.

Previous Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovators have pioneered the development of CAR T therapies, revolutionized the biomedical sciences with CRISPR gene editing tools and single-cell DNA sequencing methods, and developed computational methods for analyzing large-scale datasets that continue to yield lifesaving discoveries. 

This program was established thanks to the generosity of Andy and Debbie Rachleff. 

Submitted by Emily Montemerlo on January 26, 2023