publication date: Jan. 19, 2018

In Brief

Allison, Bax, Doudna and Chang receive NAS prizes

James Allison, of MD Anderson Cancer Center, will receive the Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.

Altogether, 19 individuals with awards in recognition of their extraordinary scientific achievements in a wide range of fields spanning the physical, biological, and medical sciences.  The winners will be honored in a ceremony April 29, during the National Academy of Sciences’ 155th annual meeting.

Allison’s research has had a vast impact on cancer therapy and the evolution of the entire field of cancer immunology. In 1983, Allison reported on the protein structure of T cell receptor, providing one of the earliest looks at the molecules involved in T cell function.

This led to the discovery of two molecules related to the activation of T cells, CD28 and CTLA-4, the second of which functions as an inhibitor that restricts T cell responses. In 1996 Allison showed that blocking CTLA-4 led to tumor rejection in mice. This opened up the field of “immune checkpoint therapy,” a paradigm shift in cancer treatment which targeted the immune system rather than tumors themselves.

After several years of clinical trials, CTLA-4 was approved as a standard treatment for patients with metastatic melanoma. It is currently being tested in several additional forms of tumors and has already benefitted the lives of tens of thousands of patients.

The Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal is awarded every two years for outstanding research in the medical sciences. The award is presented with a medal, a $25,000 prize and $50,000 to support the recipient’s research.

Adriaan Bax, an NIH Distinguished Investigator, will receive the 2018 NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing.

Bax is responsible for transforming Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy into a powerful and readily accessible tool for the study of the structure, function, and dynamics of biological macromolecules. His development of a constant stream of novel methods has led to important advances in our basic understanding of how biological systems work at the molecular level.

Bax has published more than 400 original research articles on NMR methods and applications. His book, “Two-Dimensional Nuclear Magnetic Resonance in Liquids,” was the springboard for the widespread evolution of this technology.

His conceptual innovations and pioneering experimental methodologies have been widely adopted by chemistry and structural biology laboratories, influencing research in both academic institutions and the worldwide pharmacological industry. Beyond development of the technology itself, Bax has applied NMR to a wide range of biomedical problems, with important discoveries on proteins related to HIV and Parkinson’s disease.

The 2018 NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing recognizes authors, whose reviews in structural biology have synthesized extensive and difficult material, rendering a significant service to science and influencing the course of scientific thought. The award is sponsored entirely by Annual Reviews and is presented with a $20,000 prize.

Jennifer A. Doudna, principal investigator at University of California, Berkeley, will receive the 2018 NAS Award in Chemical Sciences.

Following pioneering discoveries on how RNA can fold to function in complex ways, Doudna, along with Emmanuelle Charpentier, invented the technology for efficient site-specific genome engineering using the CRISPR/Cas9 nucleases for genome editing—a breakthrough technology which has had an immediate and wide impact on all areas of both basic and applied life sciences.

CRISPR genome editing allows precise changing of the DNA code in human cells, as well as in those of other multicellular organisms. It has the potential to create new defenses against human viruses or to correct mutated human genes and provides methods to reshape the biosphere for the benefit of the environment and human societies. CRISPR genome editing has already been adopted by tens of thousands of laboratories around the world, where it has enabled and stimulated diverse experiments that were never before simple to conduct or possible to conceive.

The NAS Award in Chemical Sciences is presented annually to honor innovative research in the chemical sciences that contributes to a better understanding of the natural sciences and to the benefit of humanity. The NAS Award in Chemical Sciences was established in 1978 and supported by Occidental Petroleum Corporation from 1978 to 1996. The Merck Company Foundation assumed sponsorship in 1999. The award is presented with a medal and a $15,000 prize.

Howard Y. Chang, Howard Y. Chang, Stanford University School of Medicine, will receive the 2018 NAS Award in Molecular Biology.

Chang is a physician-scientist who made major contributions to genome science in his discoveries about a new class of genes called long noncoding RNAs, which are pervasive in the human genome.

Long noncoding RNAs are important causes of cancer metastasis and other human diseases, as well as development and aging. His work showed that long noncoding RNAs can act as guides, scaffolds, or decoys between DNA and enzyme machines.

These discoveries themselves would not have been possible without Dr. Chang’s invention of new genomic technologies such as ATAC-seq, which maps open chromatic sites with enzymes that copy and paste DNA, and ChIRP-seq, which maps RNA occupancy sites on the genome. ATAC-seq in particular has revolutionized the field of epigenetics, improving the ability to map active DNA elements by 1 million-fold in sensitivity and 100-fold in speed. Dr. Chang’s genomic technologies have already been widely adopted by investigators in thousands of labs around the world and have revolutionized the study of many human diseases and model organisms.

The NAS Award in Molecular Biology is supported by Pfizer Inc. and recognizes a recent notable discovery in molecular biology by a young scientist (defined as no older than 45) who is a citizen of the United States. The award is presented with a medal and a $25,000 prize.


Kathy Albain receives first Huizenga Family Endowed Chair at Loyola University Chicago

Kathy Albain was named the inaugural Huizenga Family Endowed Chair in Oncology Research at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

The endowed chair will enable Albain to devote more time to cancer research, and is recognition of the outstanding contributions she has made as a physician, researcher, teacher and mentor. The chair is funded by Heidi Huizenga, one of Albain’s grateful patients, her husband Peter, and her family.

Albain is a professor in the division of hematology/oncology in the department of medicine of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. She is director of Loyola Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center’s breast clinical research program, co-director of the multidisciplinary breast oncology center and director of the thoracic oncology program.

Albain is a leader in national clinical trials of new treatments for breast and lung cancer as well as cancer survivorship research.


ACS CAN: Cancer patients should be exempt from possible Medicaid work requirements

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued guidance allowing states to require “able-bodied” adults to work, participate in job training or volunteer in order to receive Medicaid health benefits.

As part of the guidance, CMS exempts children, pregnant women, the disabled and those who are deemed, “medically frail,” however the guidance does not clearly define who would be considered medically frail.

A statement from Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network follows:

“Today’s guidance could mean a significant change to one of America’s most essential safety-net programs. Medicaid serves as a vital lifeline that provides health care coverage to more than 2.3 million low-income Americans with a history of cancer.

“Many cancer patients in active treatment are often unable to work or require significant accommodations to their work schedules due to that treatment. It is unclear from the guidance what standards states would use to define “medically frail.”

Research suggests between 40 and 85 percent of cancer patients stop working while receiving cancer treatment, with absences ranging from 45 days to six months. Additionally, evidence shows that patients who have recently completed treatment may need additional time to recover and transition back into the workplace.

“We strongly urge CMS to require states exempt people with serious, complex medical conditions, particularly cancer patients and recent survivors from any work requirements…”


ACCC’s 2017 survey: cost of treatment is top threat to cancer program growth

Amidst a dramatically changing healthcare landscape and increasingly competitive market, the Association of Community Cancer Centers eighth annual Trending Now in Cancer Care survey, which was conducted in partnership with Advisory Board’s Oncology Roundtable, identifies current and emerging trends across U.S. cancer programs.

When asked to identify the top threats to future cancer program growth, 68 percent of respondents selected cost of drugs and/or new treatment modalities as the number one threat, 47 percent named physician alignment around services and program goals, and 46 percent cited changes in healthcare coverage.

Respondents also identified cuts to fee-for-service reimbursement and the move to value-based care as significant threats to cancer program growth. One in three reported marketplace competition as a top threat. More than 290 respondents from 209 organizations participated in the 2017 survey.

Asked to identify their greatest opportunities for cost savings, respondents overwhelmingly pointed toward clinical standardization (63%) and drugs (62%). Providers see clinical standardization as a way to help reduce variation in care and eliminate duplicative services, thereby realizing cost savings.

Nearly 30 percent of respondents intend to improve clinical standardization by adopting clinical pathways for medical oncology, either vendor sponsored or homegrown. One in four survey respondents expect to realize cost savings by reducing capital expenses, such as radiation and imaging equipment.

The ACCC Trending Now in Cancer Care survey provides insights into nationwide developments in the business of cancer care. With today’s cancer patients acting more like consumers with a say in where they receive care, cancer programs continue to grow their service lines to meet this demand for personalized, patient-centered care, specifically around symptom management and survivorship.

The survey results also reveal trends around market consolidation and the rise in marketplace partnerships, participation in value-based contracts, and barriers to meeting accreditation and quality reporting requirements.

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