Wilmot Cancer Center Honors Scientist for Epigenetics Research

October 23, 2008

The James P. Wilmot Cancer Center today honored a scientist for his outstanding work in cellular and molecular signaling that plays a significant role in cancer development. Willis X. Li, Ph.D., received the Davey Memorial Award for Outstanding Cancer Research during the 13th annual Scientific Symposium.

The Davey Memorial Award for Outstanding Cancer Research was established as a tribute to R. Bruce Davey, who died in 1996. Mr. Davey’s wife, Linda, is a founding member of the Cancer Center Board and served as its first chair. The Davey Award is given annually to scientists who have made outstanding contributions to cancer research.

Li’s work is part of a burgeoning research area known as “epigenetics,” where the packaging of DNA, not just DNA itself, comes under scrutiny. Through his studies, Li  has shown that cancer-causing genes can work in more powerful and complicated ways than previously thought, and this opens new possibilities in the search for molecular targets to stop the disease.

An associate professor of genetics in the Department of Biomedical Genetics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Li does most of his research in fruit flies, which share much of the same complex cellular signaling as humans. Sorting out the major molecular processes in fruit flies or other comparatively simple organisms first has often allowed scientists studying diseases like cancer to speed the development of new treatments by years or even decades.

While scientists have firmly established that faulty genes are central to the development of cancer, Li is part of a generation of scientists looking beyond mutations in DNA, instead exploring how DNA packaging can play a role in the disease. Li and others have shown that how the body controls and regulates its genetic payload through an extensive chemical signaling network is crucial to the development of cancer.

For instance, he has shown that a pair of genes named JAK and STAT, which are closely related to a common cancer-causing genes in people, can disrupt the way that an organism’s DNA is packaged. He has found that the JAK/STAT pathway, which plays a role in the development of many leukemias and lymphomas, is a double threat, with the capability to turn on cancer-causing genes and turn off genes that normally suppress cancer.

Li is a graduate of Peking University, earned his Ph.D. in biologic sciences at Columbia University and completed postdoctoral work at Harvard University. He joined the Medical Center in 2000.

The Wilmot Cancer Center is the leader in cancer care and research in the Rochester and Finger Lakes region. The team of 400 doctors, nurses, scientists and staff are committed to finding cures for cancer.

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