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Two Jonsson Cancer Center Researchers Win New Innovator Awards

Two researchers from UCLA�s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center have won prestigious New Innovator Awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund their leading-edge research.

Siavash Kurdistani, an assistant professor of biological chemistry, and Cho-Lea Tso, an adjunct assistant professor of hematology/oncology, each will receive five-year, $1.5 million grants to help accelerate discovery of more effective and less toxic treatments for cancer.

The grants to Kurdistani and Tso were among 55 New Innovator Awards totaling $131 million given out today to early-stage investigators. In all, 115 grants totaling $348 million in three different categories were awarded by the NIH to encourage investigators to explore bold ideas that have the potential to catapult research forward.

Kurdistani�s work focuses on cancer epigenetics, a field that studies inherited information other than that encoded in DNA. Specifically, Kurdistani studies chemical modifications of proteins called histones, which are found in nearly all large organisms. In a cell nucleus, DNA – an organism�s unique map or instructions – wraps around the histones, which serve as �scaffolding� for compaction of the long DNA molecule. The complex of DNA and histones is called chromatin. Modifications of histones are important because they allow for the regulation of such processes as gene transcription, DNA repair or any other DNA-related cellular process.

Kurdistani hope to uncover and understand the mechanisms that control histone modifications and their relevance to the development of cancer.

Tso is seeking to develop a therapeutic strategy that targets a specific feature of brain tumor stem cells. Most anti-cancer therapies eliminate rapidly growing tumor cells. Because of this, finding and killing the rare, slow-growing tumor stem cells that can reconstitute a tumor if difficult. Tso and her collaborators unexpectedly found that tumor stem cells derived from treatment-resistant glioblastoma, the most common and malignant adult brain tumor, express a tumor suppressor phenotype, which over-expresses a series of genes associated with an anti-growing, anti-inflammatory, anti-differentiated and migratory phenotype. The molecular properties suggest that the brain cancer stem cells may be dormant prior to proliferation and differentiation.

Tso hopes to find a way to prevent the tumor stem cells from re-entering the cell division cycle after treatment, a strategy that would greatly diminish the recurrence rate of brain cancers.

The New Innovator Awards address two important goals – stimulating highly innovative research and supporting promising new investigators. Many new investigators have innovative ideas, but not the preliminary data required to fare well in the traditional NIH peer review system. The New Innovator grants were created to support exceptionally creative young investigators who propose highly innovative projects that have the potential for unusually high impact.

UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center has more than 240 researchers and clinicians engaged in disease research, prevention, detection, control, treatment and education. One of the nation’s largest comprehensive cancer centers, the Jonsson center is dedicated to promoting research and translating basic science into leading-edge clinical studies. In July 2009, the Jonsson Cancer Center was named among the top 12 cancer centers nationwide by U.S. News & World Report, a ranking it has held for 10 consecutive years. For more information on the Jonsson Cancer Center, visit our website at http://www.cancer.ucla.edu.

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