The Future of Cancer Research Starts Here

Through the V Scholar grant program, the V Foundation for Cancer Research supports young, tenure-track faculty early in their cancer research careers. By funding these early-career researchers, the V Foundation is ensuring innovative ideas are continuing to advance trends in the cancer research field and lead us closer to Victory Over Cancer®.

We spoke with 2019 V Scholars about what the grant has meant in the early stage of their career, why this type of grant is important to the field and what research they’ve been afforded to undertake.

What makes a V Scholar grant from the V Foundation different from other types of funding?

Yarui Diao, Ph.D., Duke Cancer Institute: My personal feeling is that most funding prefers to fund “safe” projects. I am very glad that my ideas were well received by the V Foundation. With the V Foundation’s support, I am very excited to bring our new technology to address the old question in the field of rhabdomyosarcoma (a form of sarcoma that normally begins in muscles that are attached to bones and help the body move) that no one could answer in the past 30 years.

Shane Harding, Ph.D., Princess Margaret Cancer Centre: These V Foundation funds uniquely support early-career researchers at specified locations. This degree of exclusivity allows a few things. First, a fairer competition pool among early researchers who have not had the time to establish an independent scientific “identity” but that relies on their sustained track record and promise for research potential. Secondly, a degree of prestige that feeds forward throughout ones career and helps to secure additional funding. Finally, it provides a community of researchers at a similar stage that expands a network between peers.

Vincent Luca, Ph.D., Moffitt Cancer Center: The V Scholar grant is special because it provides early career researchers with an opportunity to pursue their most innovative ideas. In today’s competitive funding environment, young scientists are often reluctant to initiate high-risk projects that may be associated with some of the highest rewards. The V Scholar grant provides seed funding for such projects, so that they may gain momentum and impact the treatment of cancer in exciting new ways.

Chris Ott, Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital: This stage of an investigator’s career is simultaneously exciting and terrifying – new equipment to purchase, new scientific staff to recruit and new ideas to pursue. Without supporting this crucial time, cancer research would not be sustained, and innovation would dry up. The importance of the V Foundation’s devotion of a significant amount of its resources to supporting early-stage cancer researchers from a diverse range of institutions and backgrounds cannot be overstated.

How important is this grant to your research career?

Harding: While I’ve just received this grant, it has distinguished me within my own institution and internationally among my colleagues. This funding is also instrumental in allowing me to bring on more staff and to ask additional questions that would not have been possible with my previous funding pool.

Ott: The success of my laboratory depends upon forward-thinking enterprises like the V Foundation, whose commitment to new thinkers is essential for cancer research. This grant will enable the pursuit of a new research direction for my group and it provides the critical support necessary for generating the compelling preliminary datasets to prove that our ideas have merit.

Rodney Infante, M.D., Ph.D., Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center: The V Scholar grant acts as a bridge grant for early investigators such as myself allowing for the accumulation of enough data to secure more traditional funding.

Zuzana Tothova, M.D., Ph.D., Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: Receiving the V Scholar award has been critical to my research career not only because of the financial support that comes with the award but also as a vote of confidence in my research program, very early on during my career. It gives you freedom and confidence in yourself during a critical time.

How do grants like the V Scholar grant help to continue pushing cancer research forward?

Luca: The development of next-generation cancer therapies will require research that spans basic tumor biology, preclinical cancer models and clinical translation. Grants provided by the V Scholar program are enabling scientists to make major advances in all of these areas. This multidisciplinary research can then be integrated to generate new drugs or cellular therapies that would not have been possible using more traditional approaches.

Ott: Conquering cancer will require a sustained investment in new thinkers. We have the energy, creativity, passion and exuberance for discovery that seeds innovations for transforming how we understand and treat these diseases. Grants such as the V Scholar grant recognize this, and are an essential component to the cancer research community. My group has been supported by the V Foundation for only a few months now, but already we have leveraged its support to make new discoveries that we are confident will give new hope for a next generation of approaches to cancer therapy.

Sidharth Puram, M.D., Ph.D., Siteman Cancer Center: The V Scholar program opens up the boundaries of traditional research, and though not all ideas will succeed, it is this fundamental willingness to take risks that will expose broad new avenues of research.

Tothova: By funding high-risk, high-reward projects, the V Scholar award allows investigators to take a risk early on in their careers and generate preliminary data that the awardees can build their future research programs on. In addition, this award brings together a wonderful community of fellow V Scholars and inspires collaborations among them.

What is the highlight of the research this grant will allow you to focus on?

Diao: With this V Scholar grant, I focus on fusion positive rhabdomyosarcoma, one of the most common and aggressive childhood cancer with no cure.

Harding: This grant will allow us to focus on reactions to radiotherapy in the brain. While tremendously effective at killing cancer, radiotherapy also damages normal tissue. We will use this support to understand what exactly this damage to normal tissue does at a molecular level and use this knowledge to explore strategies to reduce this impact.

Luca: This grant will allow my team to use structural biology and molecular engineering to “train” immune cells to kill cancer cells. We are using high-resolution imaging techniques to visualize how tumors deactivate T cells on the atomic scale. The structural information we gain from these experiments will then guide the design of novel proteins that can block this off switch to stimulate the antitumor function of T cells.

Ott: Our grant from the V Foundation is enabling my group to pursue research questions around a new class of drugs that specifically target control elements of our genomes called “enhancers.” Enhancers are the on-switches of our genomes, and the numerous cellular components that engage and regulate them have been traditionally difficult to target with medicines. Technology is now rapidly advancing to point where several enhancer factors can be efficiently modulated with prototype drugs – our efforts now are focused on understanding the effects of these new drugs and how they may be effectively deployed in cancers such as leukemia.

Infante: The V Scholar grant will allow me to focus on the body metabolism changes that occur in cancer patients resulting in cachexia, a syndrome of adipose/lean mass wasting and anorexia.

Puram: This grant allowed me to extend my work into spatial heterogeneity, allowing us to define the unique location of cancer subpopulations in head and neck cancer.

Tothova: This award will allow me to focus on a previously unchartered territory of a brand new concept of phase separation in myeloid malignancies (cancers arising from hematopoietic stem cells, which are the starter cells, or stem cells, for every blood type in the body).