Voelcker Fund supports cancer research and discovery at UT Health San Antonio

Microscope in laboratory

The Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund is awarding $800,000 to UT Health San Antonio to support research projects conducted by promising early career researchers.

The Voelcker Fund’s Young Investigator Awards, which provide each recipient with $150,000 per year over three years ($450,000), are intended to support young scientists conducting biomedical research in the areas of cancer, heart disease, arthritis, muscular dystrophy, retinitis and/or macular degeneration of the retina.

This year’s Voelcker Fund Young Investigator Award recipients at UT Health San Antonio are Dr. Lizhen Chen, PhD, and Dr. Josephine A. Taverna, MD.

Lizhen Chen, PhD

Lizhen Chen, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies and the Department of Cell Systems and Anatomy. This award will support her project “Enhancer-Associated Roles of YAP-TEAD in Breast Cancer Therapy Resistance.”

Dr. Chen is focusing on a new role of the Hippo pathway effectors, YAP/TEAD. Critical preliminary data shows that YAP depletion is sufficient to prevent resistance-associated chromatin changes and extend the scope of the project to include patient samples, and this award will support testing the effectiveness of drugs targeting YAP in preventing breast cancer therapy resistance.

Josephine A. Taverna, MD, is an assistant professor with joint appointments in the Department of Medicine and Department of Molecular Medicine. Dr. Taverna’s project is titled “Targeting AXL-JAK1 in Tumors Immune Microenvironments of Lung Adenocarcinoma.”

Josephine A. Taverna, MD

Dr. Taverna and her research team have found that the AXL-STAT3 signaling network is important not only for the proliferation and migration of lung tumor cells, but also for their recruitment of supportive host cells in the tumor microenvironment. Dr. Taverna and her research team will conduct further drug testing in humanized mouse models and translate these findings into the clinic

Dr. Taverna plans to implement a biomarker-driven clinical trial to investigate the effects of an AXL-STAT3 targeting drug on lung tumor microenvironments in patients with lung adenocarcinoma. This award will expand Dr. Taverna’s research into the field of personalized medicine and offer tailored treatments for patients with lung cancer.

The Voelcker Fund Pilot Awards provide promising young scientists with $100,000 of funding to develop their research to support a full Voelcker Fund Young Investigator Award. Angelina Vaseva, PhD, was selected for a Voelcker Fund Pilot Award.

Angelina Vaseva, PhD

Angelina Vaseva, PhD, research assistant professor in Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute and in the Department of Molecular Medicine, received a $100,000 pilot grant to support her project “Vertical Inhibition of RAF-MEK-ERK Pathway in RAS-Driven Rhabdomyosarcoma.”

Her study focuses on the development of novel therapeutic strategies for rhabdomyosarcoma driven by RAS oncogenic mutations, which is the most commonly diagnosed soft tissue sarcoma in children.

Dr. Vaseva will employ a wide variety of in vitro and in vivo drug response assays, patient-derived xenograft models and omics approaches to inform the design of future clinical trials and eventually develop non-genotoxic treatments for this cancer.

To date, the Voelcker Fund has provided $25.9 million in grants for medical research in furtherance of its charitable mission to UT Health San Antonio.

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