Hartmut “Hucky” Land, Ph.D., the Robert and Dorothy Markin Professor of Biomedical Genetics at the University of Rochester, received a newly established multimillion dollar award from the National Cancer Institute that supports exceptional scientists with seven years of uninterrupted funding.
The NCI Outstanding Investigator Award (OIA) is in its inaugural year. It was designed to reward productive and influential researchers by giving them the freedom to pursue long-term goals without having to re-submit grants each cycle. He will continue to test a bold hypothesis that’s been the cornerstone of his work for 30 years—that different cancers have many shared features, and understanding the common characteristics of cancer might unlock the next generation of targeted treatments.
“I feel very grateful and a bit humbled,” said Land, director of research and co-director at UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute. “It’s a wonderful affirmation of our focus on the common core of cancers and the work of our research team.”
Land’s approach to cancer is different than many scientists.
Most investigators are looking for the cancer gene mutations specific to individual malignancies. From there, scientists search for drugs that target those mutations. This allows patients with some types of lung cancer, for example, to receive a drug that acts upon the specific gene mutation found in their tumors. Personalized, genomic-based approaches like this are becoming a standard in cancer care.
However, because hundreds of cancer mutations exist and only a few of them can be successfully targeted by drugs, not all patients will benefit from the current approach.
To confront that major shortcoming, Land has flipped the current approach on its head and shifted his focus to studying the similarities between diverse types of cancer. Instead of searching for single cancer gene mutations, his laboratory studies the genetic programs that control all of cancer’s worst shared features— such as a cancer cell’s ability to quickly divide and survive despite aggressive treatment. The goal is to look for new ways to block or interfere with the genetic programs at the core of what makes cells cancerous, Land said.
“Cancer research is moving at a faster pace and the field is poised to make important discoveries,” said Jonathan W. Friedberg, M.D., M.M.Sc., director of the Wilmot Cancer Institute. “Hucky has always understood the complexity of cancer, and has developed a unique territory to explore. He has an innovative style that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible. We’re extremely proud of his leadership and this achievement.”
The new NCI funding is known as an R35 award; 60 other scientists in the United States will receive R35 grants on a rolling basis this year, with Land among the first. He expects to receive $6.3 million, broken into annual payments, until 2022.
“The NCI Outstanding Investigator Award addresses a problem that many cancer researchers experience: finding a balance between focusing on their science while ensuring that they will have funds to continue their research in the future,” said Dinah Singer, Ph.D., director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Biology. “With seven years of uninterrupted funding, NCI is providing investigators the opportunity to fully develop exceptional and ambitious cancer research programs.”
Researchers in the Land lab include: Jordan Aldersley, Ph.D.; Aslihan Ambeskovic, Ph.D.; Vijaya Balakrishnan, Ph.D.; Justin Komisarof; Laurel Newman; Andrew Seraichick; and Brad Smith, Ph.D. Additional key collaborators are: Helene McMurray, Ph.D from the Miner Library and the Department of Biomedical Genetics; Anthony Almudevar, Ph.D. and Matthew McCall, Ph.D., from the Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology; Aram Hezel, M.D. and Michael Odell from the Division of Hematology/Oncology at Wilmot and Joshua Munger, Ph.D. and Xenia Schafer from the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.