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Two U-M cancer researchers share Damon Runyon Foundation award--added 1/23/09
Ann Arbor, MI. -- University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers Ivan Maillard, M.D., Ph.D., and Yi Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., will share a $450,000 Innovation Award from the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.
Maillard and Zhang will look for novel ways to make bone marrow transplants safer and more widely available.
The Innovation Award, launched last year with funding from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Andrew Rachleff, supports young scientists pursuing promising but unproven ideas for treating cancer. The award selection committee targets "high risk/high reward" ideas unlikely to be funded by traditional sources, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Maillard and Zhang are among four 2009 winners, selected from 198 applicants. The winners were announced today.
"Mr. Rachleff wants to bring a venture capital sensibility and management style to biomedical cancer research. This is a very competitive award, so we are very fortunate to get it," Maillard said.
Maillard is a research assistant professor at the U-M Life Sciences Institute and an assistant professor of internal medicine and of cell and developmental biology at the U-M Medical School. Zhang is an assistant professor of internal medicine at the Medical School. Both Maillard and Zhang are members of the Cancer Center's Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program.
Allogeneic bone marrow transplantation is a powerful form of cancer treatment. In this procedure, cancer patients receive bone marrow or blood-derived stem cells from a sibling donor or a matched related donor.
Immune cells from the donor seek out and destroy cancer cells in the recipient. But it's a double-edged sword: Some of the donor immune cells can also attack healthy organs, causing a life-threatening complication called graft-versus-host disease.
Maillard and Zhang will explore an innovative approach. They'll attempt to "teach" immune cells to distinguish between cancer cells and healthy tissues by blocking a common cell-to-cell signaling system - known as the Notch signaling pathway -- that regulates immune-cell activity.
"This approach, while unproven, has the potential to revolutionize allogeneic bone marrow transplants, increasing their safety while making the procedure available to many patients who currently are not eligible," Zhang said.
Written by Jim Erickson