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Awardees honored 2013 Cancer Answers Luncheon

March 27, 2013

Tracey Barnett

Scholars honored at the 2013 Cancer Answers Luncheon on Tuesday (March 26) pose with Cancer Answers Endowment founders Marcia Huggins Jahncke, far left, and Joann Sowell, far right. From the left of Huggins Jahncke: Mien-Chie Hung, Ph.D., Andria Schibler, Marco Leung, Aarthi Goverdhan, Brian Pickering, Carly Yang, Drew Deniger, Daniel Robertson. 

The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston honored the newest recipients of the Andrew Sowell - Wade Huggins Endowed Scholarships, including the Cancers Answers/ Sylvan Rodriguez Scholarship at the annual Cancer Answers Awards Luncheon on March 26. This year also included the first Sylvan Rodriguez Foundation Scholarship honoring George M. Stancel, Ph.D.

The Scholarship Fund was established in 1991 by Joann Sowell and Marcia Huggins Jahncke to celebrate the successful cancer treatment of their 26 year-old sons, Andrew Sowell and Wade Huggins.  In 1996, the Fund made a decision to solicit funds from the community at large, and Cancer Answers, a 501c3 charitable organization, was inaugurated as the fundraising arm of the Scholarship Fund to benefit the Graduate School. The Fund’s goal is to provide financial assistance to exceptional graduate students engaged in cancer research at UTHealth and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.  

In 1999, the Sylvan Rodriguez Charities chose Cancer Answers to be one of the beneficiaries of the Sylvan Rodriguez Golf Tournament and Gala, forging a relationship between the two organizations; and in 2000, the Foundation gave Cancer Answers a significant gift leading to the creation of a special scholarship named the Cancer Answers/Sylvan Rodriguez Scholarship. The Foundation was created in memory of Sylvan Rodriguez, a Houston news anchor for KHOU and KTRK (Channel 13 and 11) who succumbed to pancreatic cancer after a 15-month battle with the disease in 2000.

Recipients of the Cancer Answers/Sylvan Rodriguez Scholarship Carly Yang, left, and the Sylvan Rodriguez/Stancel Scholarship, Marco Leung, right, pose with Sylvan Rodriguez Foundation President Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, M.D.

Each Sowell-Huggins Scholar and Sylvan Rodriguez Scholar receives $5,000, and the Sowell-Huggins Professor and Graduate Fellow receive recognition and full stipend support for the student which in turn benefits the lab as a whole, and the new Sylvan Rodriguez/Stancel Scholarship provides $2,500 to a Masters or pre-candidacy student. The award is based on the academic performance of the student and the educational contribution as well as research achievements of the faculty mentor. To date, there have been 65 Andrew Sowell - Wade Huggins Scholars; 14 Cancer Answers/Sylvan Rodriguez Scholars; six Sowell/Wade Huggins Professor/Fellow teams; and one Sylvan Rodriguez/Stancel Scholar.

This year’s Sowell-Huggins Endowed Scholars are:

Drew Deniger (Advisor: Laurence Cooper, M.D., Ph.D.): Bi-Specific Gamma Delta T Cells as Novel Adoptive T Cell Therapies: Roughly 250,000 people will be diagnosed with leukemia per year in the United States. My research investigates killer immune cells that could be used to directly kill leukemia or could modulate the tumor environment to elicit a strong anti-tumor response.

Brian Pickering (Advisor: Dihua Yu, M.D., Ph.D.,): Coherent Feed Forward Loops Regulate miRNA Biogenesis: The breast tissue found in mammals is made up of a complex network all of which is generated from a single cell we call a mammary stem cell. Cancer cells hijack this process which assists in making them resistant to chemotherapy and more likely to metastasize. My research has identified a specific point in the assembly process following the upregulation of a protein called 14-3-3ζ where the microRNA are being pulled off the line and become non-functional. My goal is to identify what is responsible for pulling the microRNA off the assembly line. 

Daniel Robertson (Advisor: Sam Beddar, Ph.D.): A Liquid Scintillator-Based Approach to Three-Dimensional Dosimetry for Intensity Modulated Proton Therapy: Radiation therapy technology for cancer treatment has advanced rapidly in recent years; however, with this advancement, verifying dosing distribution measurements has become a growing complexity in treatment fields. The main objective of my research is to develop fast, high-resolution, 3D radiation detectors based on liquid scintillator solutions.  Scintillators convert the energy from x-rays and proton beams into visible light, which can then be recorded with a camera and converted to the radiation dose. 

Andria Schibler (Advisor: Sharon Dent, Ph.D.): Set1 Deactivates the Spindle Assembly Checkpoint: Although some information is known about Mixed Lineage Leukemia, it is not entirely clear how it is associated with such a low percentage of survival. My project uses leukemia cells derived from MLL patients as well as budding yeast cells that mimic MLL to try to identify unique features that could contribute to the low survival rate seen in MLL patients. 

This year’s Andrew Sowell-Wade Huggins Professor and Graduate Fellow are:

Mien-Chie Hung, Ph.D.: The Hung laboratory is studying the role of cancer-inducing genes (oncogenes) and genes that are involved in suppression of tumors (anti-oncogenes) in cancer development. We are especially interested in those genes which code for growth factor receptors, and for gene regulators that are involved in tumor formation and development. In addition, we also hope to use what we learn about these two types of genes to develop genetic therapy for breast, head and neck, lung, ovarian, pancreatic and prostate cancers. Hung has won several honors including the John P. McGovern Outstanding Teaching Award and The University of Texas System Distinguished Teaching Professorship.

Aarthi Goverdhan: Finding the Root of the Problem in Pancreatic Cancer:  In the age of advanced medicine and high life expectancies, the answer to pancreatic cancer continues to elude scientists. While early detection in other types of cancer has greatly enhanced odds of survival, early detection in pancreatic cancer confers a five-year survival benefit for just one in five individuals. The aim of my research project is to study tumor-initiating cells in pancreatic cancer. Drawing from previous research performed in our lab, we anticipate that a protein called EZH2 which has been demonstrated to be important in other types of cancer will be an attractive target for battling tumor-initiating cells in the pancreas.

This year’s Cancer Answers/Sylvan Rodriguez Scholar is:

Qingshan (Carly) Yang (Advisor: Varsha Gandhi, Ph.D.): Investigating Pim Kinase Function in Mantle Cell Lymphoma Using Small Molecule Pim Kinase Inhibitors and Combination Strategies: Kinases are important proteins that function to maintain the structure and function of healthy cells, but can also lead to cancer development if they are improperly regulated. For example, when cells produce an enzyme called Pim kinase in excess it can lead to disease. My research focuses on investigating the role of Pim kinases and their inhibition by the drug SGI-1776 in the aggressive and hard-to-treat mantle cell lymphoma (MCL). 

The first Sylvan Rodriguez/Stancel Scholar is: 

Marco Leung (Advisor: Nicholas Navin, Ph.D.): Investigating Metastasis in Heterogeneous Tumors Using Single Cell Sequencing: Despite the tremendous progress in cancer research, the survival rate for patients with metastatic diseases remains poor in most cancer types. This problem stems from our poor understanding of which cancer cells acquire genetic changes and disseminate to seed the metastatic tumors. To address this problem we are developing innovative new methods to sequence the genomes of single tumor cells. By sequencing hundreds of single cells from primary and metastatic tumors, we can reconstruct an evolutionary tree and trace this lineage to identify the cells that are responsible for seeding the metastatic tumor.