Early-Career Cancer Researchers Win AAAS Wachtel Award

Li Ma studies the molecular determinants of breast cancer progression, while Jeffrey Tyner is screening the genome for cancer drug targets.

Moore's Law notes that the number of transistors in a microchip tends to double about every two years, meaning that advances in computer hardware have been — and are still — occurring at exponential rates. But Jeffrey Tyner has been investigating cancer since 2005, and he says that his field is experiencing even more rapid breakthroughs.

"Advances in DNA sequencing technology, by several orders of magnitude, have outpaced Moore's Law, and it doesn't show any sign of letting up," said Tyner, an assistant professor at the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University. "I expect that, over the coming years, we'll continue to see great advances in this and other technologies that will benefit cancer research."

Tyner is one of the researchers leading this advance. He and Li Ma, an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, were both honored with the AAAS Martin and Rose Wachtel Cancer Research Award at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, on 7 July.

Alan I. Leshner (left) and Jeffrey Tyner | AAAS/ Brandon Bryn

The award was created by a million-dollar endowment from Martin L. Wachtel, a businessman who, in 1939, established a farm devoted exclusively to raising albino mice and rats for medical research. The award recognizes young scientists who have performed outstanding work in the field of cancer research. This was the second year in a row that AAAS and the Center for Cancer Research at the National Cancer Institute presented the prize, but it was the first time that the $25,000 award money was split by two scientists.

"Although it's not the only barometer, success in one's scientific career early on can often become a really important predictor of later, long-term achievement. Recognition of such early successes provides great impetus and opportunity for further accomplishments," said Bill Dahut, the clinical director and deputy director at the Center for Cancer Research. "We're really quite pleased to again host this special lecture because we think it's incredibly important to honor and support early cancer researchers in the field."

Both of the award-winners published articles in Science Translational Medicine that highlight their recent research projects and detail the relevant implications of their results. In her Focus article, Ma describes her discovery of certain determinants of breast cancer progression, such as the proliferation of microRNAs known as miR-10b and and miR-9, the loss of a receptor protein called LIFR, and an enzyme that transforms the tumor suppressing protein PTEN. Tyner, on the other hand, has been leveraging functional and genomic screening methods to discover regions of the genome that are mutated, conferring particular sensitivity to gene-targeted drugs, as he describes in his Focus article.

"This year, the award presented an unusual challenge because the research areas of the two leading candidates were so different," explained Yevgeniya Nusinovich, an associate editor at Science Translational Medicine. " We ended up selecting two co-winners for this award, with one representing the basic side of cancer research and the other working closer to patient applications, or more applied research, but both doing equally outstanding work."

And, indeed, both young scientists' contributions to cancer research are being viewed as game-changing. Ma, for example, has noticed that many of the breast cancer determinants identified by her lab also contain clues to other types of tumors. She suggests that a longer list of such determinants could raise new therapeutic opportunities for treating a variety of cancers.

Li Ma | AAAS/ Brandon Bryn

"Some of the metastasis-regulating pathways that we identified in breast cancer are also deregulated in other cancer types…so we hope that we can first develop therapeutic strategies based on this pathway and then eventually apply them to other cancer types as well," she said.

Tyner's work, which has focused on diseases like acute lymphoblastic leukemia and chronic neutrophilic leukemia, is improving researchers' understanding of how genetic events can influence these different cancer types. It's also taking clinicians one step closer to personalized therapies.

"It's a really exciting time to be in the field of cancer research, with all the new tools that we have. Deep sequencing is revolutionizing all of biology," he said. "I think the prognosis is good; we're making a lot of progress…but it's not going to be the type of thing where we flip the switch and, overnight, we have it. It's going to be an incremental, step-by-step process."

After the 7 July award ceremony, Ma agreed with Tyner's cautious optimism about the field: "In research, you face a lot of unsuccessful experiments and frustration all the time. But I personally feel excited to discover something that has never been reported before, and to discover things that are relevant to human cancer."

"That has really been driving me along my way," she said.