Voelcker Fund awards $650,000 to cancer researchers on the rise

Microscope in laboratory

The Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund is awarding $650,000 to UT Health San Antonio to support innovative cancer research projects conducted by rising star faculty members.

The Voelcker Fund Young Investigator Award provides each recipient $150,000 per year over three years, for a total of $450,000. It is intended to support young scientists conducting research to find cures for cancer, heart disease, arthritis, muscular dystrophy, retinitis and macular degeneration of the retina.

This year’s Voelcker Fund Young Investigator Award recipient is:

Weixing Zhao, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry and structural biology and member of the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute.

Dr. Zhao studies how mutations of BRCA1 and BARD1 genes lead to cell transformation and neuroblastoma, which is considered the leading cause of cancer death among young children.

This award will support his project “Insights into the BRCA1-BARD1-Aurora kinase axis in neuroblastoma.” Dr. Zhao hopes this research program identifies new molecular mechanisms that can be targeted to develop more effective and less toxic therapies to benefit cancer patients.

Two Voelcker Fund Pilot Grants in the amount of $100,000 each will support:

Lizhen Chen, PhD, assistant professor in the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies and the Department of Cell Systems and Anatomy. Dr. Chen’s project is “Targeting YAP/TEAD on enhancers for therapy resistance in breast cancer.”

She is studying the role of the YAP1 and TEAD4 proteins as interacting factors of the estrogen receptor α (ERα), and their ability to promote the acquisition of endocrine therapy resistance in breast cancer. Her long-term goal is to identify new biomarkers and therapeutic targets to halt breast cancer progression.

In addition, the Voelcker Fund has supported her collaborative work documenting genetic signals that promote the conversion of cancer cells from one stage to another, which was recently published in the journal Nature Cell Biology and co-authored with Dr. Zhijie “Jason” Liu.

Josephine A. Taverna, MD, is an assistant professor with joint appointments in the Department of Medicine and Department of Molecular Medicine. She will use the funding to conduct preclinical studies examining the role of AXL-JAK inhibitors targeting the inflammatory and immunosuppressive microenvironment in lung cancer patients.

Her research is centered on the identification of potential biomarkers of treatment response, to help identify patients who will likely achieve long-term responses to AXL and JAK inhibitors in the future.

Another novel aspect of her research is the incorporation of patient-derived organoids (PDOs) for drug screening and selection. PDOs are particularly useful in clinical trials as they offer a unique opportunity to determine which patients will respond to AXL and JAK inhibitors (or other targeted drugs) based on their molecular signatures.

This Voelcker Fund Young Investigator Award will continue the forward trajectory of Dr. Taverna’s research in personalized medicine by taking advantage of novel technologies to tailor treatment responses for patients with lung cancer.

To date, the Voelcker Fund has provided $24.5 million to UT Health San Antonio.

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