Multidisciplinary Cancer Researcher Wins Wachtel Award

Hani Goodarzi speaks about his Wachtel Award-winning research at the National Institutes of Health. | Sam Million-Weaver/ AAAS

A track record of cutting edge computational analysis combined with technically challenging experiments to discover how cancer cells become invasive has earned Hani Goodarzi the 2017 AAAS Martin and Rose Wachtel Cancer Research Award .

Goodarzi, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote an essay on his work for the July 26 issue of Science Translational Medicine, and gave a public lecture during an award reception on July 28 at the National Institutes of Health.

"Hani Goodarzi was selected as the winner of this year's AAAS Martin and Rose Wachtel Cancer Research Award in recognition of his role in developing new techniques and collaborations to understand how cancer cells regulate the process of metastasis, which is the key cause of death in cancer patients," said Yevgeniya Nusinovich, a senior editor at Science Translational Medicine.

The annual AAAS Martin and Rose Wachtel Cancer Research Award recognizes early-career scientists who have already made outstanding contributions to the field of cancer research within 10 years of completing their Ph.D. or M.D. degree. Honorees receive a cash award of $25,000 thanks to a generous endowment bequeathed by Martin L. Wachtel.

"The Wachtel Cancer Research Award is an excellent honor, and it gets better every year," said Tom Misteli, director of the Center for Cancer Research at the National Institutes of Health.

"Being awarded the Wachtel prize, in addition to being a great honor, increases the visibility of my approach to cancer research," said Goodarzi. "As a multidisciplinary scientist, my research is highly collaborative and can largely benefit from interactions with other researchers in the field."

Goodarzi's approach has helped demystify the biological complexity of cancer, revealing paradigm-shifting insights into how tumors reprogram their cellular states to encourage the cancer to spread, or metastasize.

"As a postdoc, I identified two distinct pathways that contribute to metastatic progression in breast cancer," said Goodarzi. "Both of these discoveries were the culmination of many years of research that go all the way back to my undergraduate studies. I am most proud of seeing these ideas from conception to demonstration, while learning new techniques and developing new technologies."

Cancers arise when healthy cells begin proliferating uncontrollably, and scientists now recognize that myriad genetic and environmental influences intertwine to drive disease progression. Understanding the vast array of diverse changes driving different types of cancers at multiple stages requires substantial amounts of data-wrangling supported by sophisticated experiments.

"Ultimately, our knowledge of cancer biology closely tracks our general understanding of biological systems and our ability to monitor and follow cells. Thus, we need to significantly increase the overall investment in basic research in order to avoid holding back cancer research."

Hani Goodarzi

"Computationally oriented projects represent only a slice of Hani's remarkably creative and productive time at Princeton," said Saeed Tavazoie, now a professor at Columbia University, who supervised Goodarzi's Ph.D. training at Princeton. "He was also the key driver of three other projects that integrated unrivaled expertise in computation with technical wizardry at the bench."

One of the tools Goodarzi contributed to developing — a computational pipeline and open-access web-based portal called iGET with more than 1,400 registered users — integrates information about disrupted gene expression patterns across diverse cancers to home in on the underlying pathways that drive the cells to become deregulated.

Another resource Goodarzi pioneered is a program called TEISER for predicting if RNA adopts three dimensional shapes. Information about RNA conformations has helped reshape understanding about some of the problematic gene expression patterns that cause tumors to become invasive.

Cells store genetic information in double-stranded DNA, which is intertwined as two spiraling helices and packaged inside the cell nucleus. To operate the DNA instruction manual, cells transcribe portions of their genomes into RNA, a single-stranded molecule that can fold into complex configurations. Some RNAs serve as templates to produce proteins, which do work inside cells, but other RNAs perform vital structural and chemical functions themselves. Those properties depend, in part, on RNA folding.

Using tools he helped develop, Goodarzi discovered that one type of RNA called tRNA (which typically do the work of putting proteins together from constituent parts) determines whether or not breast cancer becomes metastatic.

Goodarzi is continuing to build his multidisciplinary research program and even applying some of his methodologies beyond cancer to other complicated problems, like precisely controlling gene expression circuits for synthetic biology.

"Ultimately, our knowledge of cancer biology closely tracks our general understanding of biological systems and our ability to monitor and follow cells," said Goodarzi. "Thus, we need to significantly increase the overall investment in basic research in order to avoid holding back cancer research."

Goodarzi remains committed to forging forward at the frontiers of cancer research as scientific understanding continues to evolve.

"To see the future, we should look at the past. A decade ago, cancer research was substantially different," said Goodarzi. "It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict what paradigm shifts will happen over 10 years."


[Credit for associated image: Chris Bickel/ Science]