At the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, our research focus is singular: High-risk, high-reward. We believe that only by pursuing and investing in the most audacious and ambitious ideas, and the young scientists who have those ideas, will we achieve real and lasting victory over humankind’s deadliest enemy. For Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator Amaia Lujambio, PhD, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, cancer research isn’t just a job, it’s a passion. Amaia’s focus is on hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common form of liver cancer, because she wanted to tackle a difficult disease with few treatment options and poor prognosis.
“Despite the initial failure of checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapies in clinical trials for liver cancer patients, I had a gut feeling that it would eventually work,” Amaia says.
She was right. Now that that immunotherapy has been approved for liver cancer patients, her lab is focusing on deciphering why only a small subset of patients respond to these treatments and finding strategies to overcome resistance.
How is your research addressing some of the difficulties checkpoint inhibitor therapy faces in the clinic?
We are working on identifying which patients are more likely to respond to therapy and trying to establish novel combinations of immunotherapies that can be effective in those patients that are initially resistant to immunotherapy.
Trying to understand what's going on inside patients is complicated by the different mutations each person’s tumor carries. We created a mouse model that accurately resembles tumors in patients. Using this model and samples from HCC patients treated with checkpoint inhibitor, we recently found a pathway that promotes immune escape and drug resistance. These findings will be critical in defining biomarkers to select the HCC patients that are most likely to benefit and help design strategies to overcome resistance.
Has Damon Runyon opened doors for you and your career that may not have been accessible otherwise?
Amaia: Receiving a Damon Runyon award is very prestigious and highly competitive. It has given me a lot of visibility and a broad network that has been critical to establishing collaborations.
I met Dr. Joshua Brody, a Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator at a Damon Runyon retreat. We decided to join forces by adapting his novel therapies for lymphoma for liver cancer. I have another exciting collaboration with scientists at Genentech in San Francisco, who are developing novel combination immunotherapies for liver cancer patients.
Do you feel that your Damon Runyon project proposal is risky?
Yes. That's why I decided to apply for the Damon Runyon Innovation Award—because it specifically funds high-risk, high-reward projects. The basis of the project was innovative, but we didn’t have enough preliminary data for conventional funding agencies.
We have already published part of our new data in a high-impact journal, so now I feel confident that the risk was definitely worth it.
To learn more about the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation and the incredible work that all of our scientists are doing, please visit damonrunyon.org.
Photography by: Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation