The Damon Runyon - Jake Wetchler Award
for Pediatric Innovation
Together with The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, we give a special award each year to recognize and support innovative researchers in the fight against pediatric cancer. The Damon Runyon-Jake Wetchler Award for Pediatric Innovation is given annually to a third-year Damon Runyon Fellow whose research has the greatest potential to impact the prevention, diagnosis, or treatment of one or more forms of pediatric cancer.
The Award is made in memory of Jake Wetchler, a young man who fought with indomitable spirit against two cancers. At age 18, Jake was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and beat the cancer into remission. But the chemotherapy he received gave him a second cancer, and with few effective treatments available, he lost his life to acute myeloid leukemia. Jake never let down in his fight against cancer, living with a powerful will and lively wit, and while cancer killed Jake, it never defeated him.
This Award in Jake’s honor recognizes scientists whose research helps to fight back against pediatric cancer, and whose innovative ideas and hard work may one day lead to cures so that young people like Jake can live their lives and fulfill their promise. It is a $5,000 award with no restrictions on its use.
Click on the accordions below to read about how each of these researchers is working with leading edge science and technology to find better and safer treatments for children.
At the age of 14, Marissa Rashkovan decided that her mission in life would be to cure cancer. Her mother had been diagnosed with Stage 3 Follicular B cell lymphoma, and Marissa watched as she battled through harsh chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, only to see the cancer come back in another, more aggressive form. More intense chemotherapy followed, along with a second stem cell transplant. Thankfully, today, 15 years later, Marissa’s mother is cancer-free. Her illness, however, had a profound effect on Marissa’s family and herself, and led to Marissa’s commitment to becoming a cancer researcher.
Marissa Rashkovan, PhD, now works at Columbia University, where she is studying a highly aggressive form of blood cancer called ETP acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ETP-ALL.) This disease is notoriously difficult to treat, with survival rates around 13%, and children who do survive face significant side effects later in life from the intense chemotherapy regimens.
Dr. Rashkovan has found a unique metabolic pathway in ETP-ALL that can be targeted for treatment -- and potentially with already-known drugs on the market. She is screening FDA-approved drugs to find candidates that may act on ETP-ALL cancer cells, an approach that takes advantage of compounds with already-established safety profiles, and that could speed new treatments to patients greatly in need. Her innovative approach is advancing important science and holds promise for better and safer treatments for a high-risk pediatric cancer.
Dr. Challice Bonifant is working to revolutionize cancer treatments for children by engineering cells from the patient’s own immune system so they can recognize and kill the cancer. Her research focuses on acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which is the disease that took Jake’s life and is a devastating form of cancer with high levels of treatment-related toxicity and low survival rates.
While immunotherapy treatments have been successful with other types of leukemia, such as Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), AML is more difficult to attack because the target proteins found on malignant cells are also found on normal cells. Targeting these would therefore cause toxicity to the normal cells - an unacceptable side effect. Dr. Bonifant has taken the innovative approach of designing T immune cells that can target two proteins at the same time. This dual expression is common for disease cells but rare in healthy ones, enabling the treatment to more precisely kill the cancer cells. Tests in animal models have shown promise and Dr. Bonifant has filed for a provisional patent, with the intent that her work lead to the development of a clinical therapy for pediatric AML.
Both a researcher and a pediatrician, Dr. Bonifant is driven by a powerful desire to see breakthroughs from her lab impact patient lives. This passion for translating discoveries into treatments started when she was an undergraduate researcher at Wake Forest University, working on the biochemical mechanism of hydroxyurea metabolism, for treating sickle cell disease. At the time, she was also volunteering in the local children’s hospital and happened to serve dinner to a teenage girl with sickle cell disease. The girl was excited to have begun taking a new medication with much promise for turning her disease around. The medicine was hydroxyurea. For Dr. Bonifant, the connection between laboratory investigation and the relief of human suffering was made.
In January, 2019, Dr. Bonifant will be moving from her current position at the University of Michigan to the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Johns Hopkins. The institute was established as a part of the Cancer Moonshot initiative, with the express purpose of accelerating the movement of discoveries from the lab to patients in need.
In Dr. Bonifant’s words, “Working with pediatric patients and in particular pediatric patients who are suffering either from their cancer or from the toxicity of their cancer treatment is what motivates me every day in the lab to try to do better, to work harder, and to find a solution.”
Dr. Amanda Balboni Iniguez had a passion for science from a very young age and was inspired to become a cancer biologist in high school, when she became involved in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fundraiser. “Hearing stories from cancer survivors motivated me to pursue a career as a cancer scientist,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to develop new therapies that will improve survival with decreased side effects for pediatric patients.”
Her current research focus is on a class of compounds to treat pediatric neuroblastoma, a devastating cancer that most commonly affects children age five years or younger. Neuroblastoma typically forms in immature nerve cells resulting in tumor growth in the neck, chest, abdomen, or spine of the child. Currently, there are few effective treatments for neuroblastoma, and the disease accounts for 15% of all childhood cancer deaths.
Dr. Balboni Iniguez is targeting epigenetic regulators in cells as an innovative approach to shutting down the disease. These regulators act as the on/off switches controlling the production of proteins. In cancer cells, the switches often malfunction, allowing the cells to grow out of control. Dr. Balboni Iniguez's work has profound implications for the clinical treatment of high-risk neuroblastoma and may offer an effective treatment strategy for patients with advanced disease. Her discoveries in this field may translate into treatments for other cancers as well.
Dr. Balboni Iniguez's work in neuroblastoma builds on her research accomplishments in another pediatric cancer, Ewing sarcoma, which is a rare solid tumor of the bone or tissue surrounding the bone that strikes children and young adults. This research selectively targeted a protein driving the disease and identified a molecule that inhibits its progression, offering an opportunity for clinical treatments. Her discovery also increases our understanding of this childhood cancer’s cell biology, and has been submitted to the prestigious journal, Cancer Cell, for publication.
“It was a huge surprise to me to win the Jake Wetchler Award for Pediatric Innovation." says Dr. Balboni Iniguez. "...it is encouraging any time you receive recognition for your work, however, this is particularly special for me. It was an honor to meet the founders of the Jake Wetchler Foundation, who have bravely championed for innovative research in the field of pediatric oncology and are very familiar with the unique challenges this field faces... I continue to dedicate my life to understanding some of the most devastating pediatric cancers and I hope to make a real difference in the lives of children affected with these diseases.”
Dr. Zimmerman’s research focuses on neuroblastoma, a particularly devastating cancer that strikes very young children. The median age of these cancer patients is just seventeen months – they are infants, toddlers, and grade school children. High risk neuroblastoma has few effective treatments, and the disease accounts for 15% of all childhood cancer deaths.
Dr. Zimmerman’s interest in cancer began as a biochemistry student at the Rochester Institute of Technology where he became fascinated with the mechanisms by which normal cells become malignant. Later, during his post-doctoral work at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, he visited the Jimmy Fund Clinic where children were undergoing chemotherapy, and was deeply moved by the need for research into better pediatric treatments. As a result, he decided to focus his post-doctoral efforts on pediatric oncology.
Dr. Zimmerman’s current project, Elucidating the mechanism of CHD5-mediated tumor suppression in neuroblastoma, seeks to understand the function of a particular family of genes, called the MYC oncogenes, that have been found to play a role in malignancy. MYC functions as a master regulatory gene, working in concert with various enzymes and transcription factors to direct gene expression. Dr. Zimmerman has already identified how an insufficiency of the enzyme CHD5 accelerates tumor growth in a zebrafish model of neuroblastoma by enabling MYC to overcome rate-limiting constraints on cell proliferation. Using a combination of innovative computational and biochemical methods, he is now defining and validating the core transcriptional unit essential for neuroblastoma cell survival and the transcriptional circuitry that emerges from it. With this knowledge, we may ultimately be able to develop targeted therapeutics to shut down the circuits necessary for the cancer to grow.
We are fortunate to have as our first award recipient such a gifted scientist who is also dedicated to saving the lives of children with cancer.