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Grantee Spotlight: CURE Poster Winners and Mock Review Highlights

AACR 100th Annual Meeting 2009 Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE)

Professional Development Workshop
April 15-16, 2010
Legacy Hotel
Rockville, MD

Poster Winners
Mock Review

CRCHD is pleased to recognize a number of our trainees who presented at the CURE Professional Development Workshop Podium and Poster presentation. Over 100 CURE trainees had an opportunity to highlight their scientific research and activities in an interactive, networking forum of diverse investigators, trainees and NCI staff.

Congratulations to all the winners for their stellar podium and poster presentations!

Poster Winners:

This year’s CURE Professional Development Workshop Poster Session was a huge success. CRCHD recognizes the three poster winners:

FIRST PLACE AWARD – Dr. Tracy R. Daniels

SECOND PLACE WINNER – Dr. Federico Bernal


FIRST PLACE AWARD - Dr. Tracy R. Daniels

This year’s first place award went to Tracy R. Daniels, Ph.D., of the UCLA Department of Surgery/Surgical Oncology in Los Angeles, for her project entitled “Versatile Targeted Therapy for the Treatment of B-Cell Malignancies.”

“The drugs developed and characterized in our laboratory are biologics derived from antibodies that target cancer cells and can either directly kill cancer cells and/or stimulate the immune system to eliminate the tumor,” Dr. Daniels said. While at UCLA, Daniels has been involved in the development of potential therapies for breast cancer, prostate cancer, multiple myeloma, and aggressive lymphomas.

Daniels, a CRCHD K01 grantee and RO1 cancer grant recipient, focused her poster on two drugs that target multiple myleloma, an incurable disease, and lymphoma. The first drug, transferring receptor 1, is an antibody that targets the receptor. The second drug is composed of the same antibody but genetically fused to the protein “avidin,” and changes the structure of the antibody making it more powerful as an anti-cancer drug.

Dr. Daniels’ data showed that the presence of avidin did not interfere with the antibody’s ability to perform its natural immune stimulating functions. In addition, both drugs showed dramatic anti-cancer myeloma activity using two different mouse models. “This study demonstrates that both drugs have great potential for the treatment of B-cell malignances, including aggressive lymphomas and multiple myeloma,” states Dr. Daniels.

A member of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Indian tribe of Battlecreek, Michigan, Dr Daniels earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from Loma Linda University in 2004. She is now a post doctoral fellow at UCLA focusing on the development of new biologics for cancer treatment. She obtained a B.S. degree with a double major in biology and physical science from California Baptist College in Riverside, California in 1997.

“My mentor (Dr. Manuel L. Penichet, MD, Ph.D.) and I are grateful for the support from CRCHD which has helped to advance my career tremendously,” Dr. Daniels said.

SECOND PLACE AWARD - Dr. Federico Bernal

Federico Bernal, Ph.D., at the Department of Pediatric Oncology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute won the 2nd place award for his poster “Molecular Determinants of Cancer Cell Susceptibility to HDMX Inhibition,” for his work with p53.

Often referred to as the “guardian of the genome,” p53 is a tumor suppressor gene whose primary function is to stop the formation of cancer tumors or damaged cells. Upon identifying a cancerous cell or damaged cell, p53 working normally can either activate DNA repair proteins to repair the cancerous cell itself, or program action for the damaged cell to self destruct if it is irreparable, says Bernal. As a “guardian angel gene” it preserves stability by preventing genome mutation. In humans, p53 is encoded by the TP53 gene located on the short arm of chromosome 17p13.1. In other mammals, it is located on other chromosomes, such as chromosome 5 in the dog, chromosome 19 in the cow, chromosome 12 in the pig and so on.

Genetic damage to the TP53 gene itself can disable its normal function either by mutating p53 or deleting it entirely, and as a result, tumor suppression is severely reduced. The TP53 gene can be damaged by mutagens such as chemicals, radiation and viruses. More than 50% of all human cancers contain a mutation or deletion of the TP53 gene, and people who inherit only one functional copy of the TP53 gene are more likely to develop cancers in early adulthood.

Using synthetic organic chemistry and a technique called “peptide stapling,” Dr. Bernal and his colleagues have designed compounds with a peptide that can restore the p53 pathway in cells, and thus, restoring p53 to its proper function. This could eventually have huge implications in new approaches to cancer treatment. Bernal is continuing his work in the National Cancer Institute’s CCR/Metabolism branch in Bethesda, Maryland.

Dr. Bernal was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and is the 36-year-old father of two daughters. He received his B.S. degree in organic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Ma, in 1997, and his Ph.D from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, in 2002.


The 3rd place winner in the poster series went to Flora A.M. Ukoli, M.D., at the Department of Surgery, Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, TN, for her “Personalized Prostate Cancer Education Program for Low-income African-American men.” Dr. Ukoli’s research project was supported by a K01.

Enrolling 514 men for her study, Dr. Ukoli demonstrated that a 15 minute one-on-one personalized education program was effective in increasing prostate cancer screening in a group of men who had previously never undergone prostate cancer examinations. The men gained trust in the health care system and its providers, and increased their knowledge of the benefits of screening.

Dr Ukoli reported 40% of the men in the study lacked health insurance. Another 34% told her they did not want to be screened because of pain or discomfort during the exam and 31% of the men said they did not want a prostate exam for fear of learning they had cancer. Most of the men were around 56 years of age. About 31% did not have a high school education, 29% were unemployed, 61% had an annual income less than $25,000, and 58% said they did not have health insurance.

“This program was developed with the full participation of the community. The program provided direct counseling to the participants who in turn shared their experiences with their friends,” says Dr. Ukoli. To better understand the concerns and needs of her patients, Dr. Ukoli convened a 15 person Community Advisory Board.

Born in Nigeria, Dr. Ukoli received her medical degree in 1975 from University College Hospital, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. In 1980, she received a DrPH from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and in 1998, she received her MPH in epidemiology from the University of Pittsburgh.

African American men have the highest incidence and mortality rates of prostate cancer in the world, while Nigerians born in Africa have among the lowest incidence of prostate cancer, she said.

Mock Review:

At the Fourth Annual CRCHD Professional Development and Peer Review Workshop, underrepresented students and researchers had the opportunity to participate in a Mock Review to gain first-hand experience in the NIH Peer Review Process.

Sixteen CURE trainees served as peer reviewers of several R01 and R03 NIH applications. Dr. Melinda Mahabee Gittens, of Cincinnati’s Children Hospital Center, served as Chair of the Mock Review. Dr. Rina Das was the scientific review officer for the review.

Dr. Robert A. Winn

Dr. Amarilliz Rivera

Dr. June McKoy

Dr. Nora Engel

Dr. Robert A. Winn

For an afternoon, Robert A. Winn, M.D., of the University of Colorado and Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) trainee, found himself going through the arduous process of being a NIH Grants Reviewer, learning about what makes a crisp, clean, well written, competitive federal grant, and what type of grants do not even make first cuts. The process has energized his own research and now he looks at his research with a more critical eye.

“The whole grants review process was exciting, invigorating, difficult, and complex yet it made me more confident to write a successful federal grant,” said Dr. Winn.

For the past several years, Dr. Winn has been at the University of Colorado in Aurora studying the Wnt signaling pathway hoping to understand its possible role in lung cancer. The Wnt pathway is an elaborate network of proteins known for their role in 85% of colon rectal cancers, and other cancers in embryogenesis, and in normal physiological processes in human adults.

Dr. Winn’s ambition is to humanize medicine and give back to the poor and the community. Working on the battlefield of cancer is much more fun than sitting behind a desk doing paperwork, or constructing theories.

Dr. Amarilliz Rivera

As a member of the mock review, Amarilliz Rivera, Ph.D., found the experience as a reviewer to be “exhilarating, enlightening, and feeling better prepared to write successful grants.”

“Everyone on the panel brought their own unique backgrounds and experiences making the mock review process rich in diversity and perspective,” Dr. Rivera said. “Bringing this kind of diversity to the real grant review committees at NIH would enrich the review process.”

“The hardest part of writing a grant is being able to convey your work to different audiences, and communicating about a subject that you are very familiar with, to those who may be learning the field for the first time,” Dr. Rivera said. As the mother of two sons, Dr. Rivera says the most challenging aspect to becoming a successful independent researcher has been motherhood, and believes NIH’s efforts to increase diversity in science should include more programs that support “women with children.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Dr Amarilliz, 38, has been an immunologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for the past 7 years. Dr. Rivera’s NCI Mentored Career Development Award (K01) research is focusing on the potential therapeutic use of CD4 T cells to prevent fungal infections in cancer patients.

Dr. June McKoy

June McKoy, M.D., J.D., a physician and lawyer from Northwestern University in Chicago, said the mock review process allowed her to engage “in a vibrant discourse with my peers and to get a better understanding of the factors that drive the scoring across the spectrum of reviewers.” She found herself late at night reading the 11 grants reviews as if each was a “novel.”

“Learning about grant review enabled me to look deeper at my own science,” Dr. McKoy said. She is studying adverse drug reactions in older cancer patients, examining how other diseases such as diabetes and hypertension affect treatment. While the very thought of being peer reviewed by your colleagues is daunting, Dr. McKoy says it has energized her skills. “I now know precisely how not to over budget or under budget my research, and how to run the day to day operations of a lab with a staff more precisely,” she said.

Moreover, Dr. McKoy said she has gained a better appreciation for the importance of a timeline. “CRCHD leadership advises starting early, ensuring that the scientific concepts are sound, and putting together an overall quality research proposal that flows seamlessly; I definitely echo that advice!” Dr. McKoy said.

Dr. Nora Engel

Nora Engel, Ph.D., of the Fels Institute, Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia said, “the mock review was such an interesting learning experience, and I think it really drives home how much effort the reviewers and SROs on study sections put into the system! And, how much I still have to learn! I most enjoyed the debates and exchanges - they really make you hone your opinions scientifically. I'm sure that setting this up must have been a huge effort and this was a unique and rewarding experience."

Updated: 05/15/13