A strength Sanford Burnham Prebys is the discovery of novel cancer.
The Institute is also fortunate to be located at the hub of a cluster of over 700 biotech companies in San Diego. These strengths have been combined in this program because the barriers between academia and biotech/pharma are rapidly breaking down with the emergence of a new model where pharma is increasingly looking to biotech and academia for its cancer drug discoveries. As such, there is a need to expose trainees to the exciting opportunities that exist in translational research.
The goal is to train the next generation of leaders in cancer discovery, cancer drug discovery, and biomarker development. This two-year training program will provide the skills needed to execute a successful cancer drug discovery program using novel paradigms and state-of-the-art technologies. The goal of the program is to train the next generation of leaders in cancer discovery, target validation, as well as drug and biomarker development.
- Training will focus on the discovery of novel paradigms in cancer biology, identifying new targets in the context of signaling networks, mechanisms of genetic and epigenetic regulation, and on exploring non-traditional targets, for example, components of tumor stroma, which are important for supporting cancer cell growth and providing a barrier to attack by immune cells.
- Participating faculty have partnered with the Prebys Center, the most advanced small molecule platform available in any academic organization.
- Training will be provided in exceptional basic research aimed at establishing novel paradigms in cancer biology and immunology. Reliance on genetic models and human clinical data will substantiate and direct basic research towards the further development of novel targets and markers in cancer detection, monitoring and treatment.
- Training the next generation of scientists to conduct state of the art cancer research promoting the discovery of novel mechanisms underlying cancer development and progression will result in a new generation of scientists that are trained for academic and biotech positions, with the option of developing research careers in drug discovery related disciplines.
Participants in this training program will be provided a solid platform from which to pursue their future cancer-focused research-intensive and research-related careers, they will participate in a formal curriculum of education and training activities.
It is expected that trainees who have completed this program will have received a well-rounded training experience in cutting-edge cancer research of clinical relevance and will be well prepared to embark on a variety of independent research-intensive and research-related careers. While many of the trainees in this program will wish to pursue an academic career path, this program will also provide an awareness of a variety of other career paths available.
Dr. Cosford is responsible for all managerial aspects of this training program. He works closely with the Steering Committee and the External Advisory Committee. Dr. Cosford is committed to the training of our next generation of scientists. He provides additional practical experience of research in both the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, and academic research. He oversees trainee access to the advanced technological core facilities and resolves any issue relating to the proper use of these facilities. He also helps oversee scientific aspects of the biotech internships for the trainees to ensure that the projects are high quality with a focus on cancer research, that acceptable plans are in place for a meaningful biotech research experience, and that there are clearly defined and reasonable deliverables for the length of the internship.
Cancer Discovery and Translation is an NIH-funded training program. This program accepts both Ph.D. and Ph.D./M.D. postdoctoral researchers.
Applicants must be United States citizens, noncitizen nationals or have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence by the time of their appointment.
Non-citizen nationals are people, who, although not citizens of the United States, owe permanent allegiance to the United States. They are generally people born in outlying territories of the United States (e.g., American Samoa and Swains Island). Individuals who have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence must have a currently valid Alien Registration Receipt Card (I-551) or other legal verification of such status.
Individuals on temporary or student visas are not eligible.
Prior Ruth L. Kirschstein-NRSA support
The National Research Service Award (now known as Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award) provides for a maximum of three years of postdoctoral funding. Since the Cancer Discovery and Translation program requires a minimum two-year, NRSA-eligible commitment, eligibility for the program requires that you have had no more than one year of prior NRSA postdoctoral support.
Application update: Current T32 Cancer Discovery and Translation positions have been filled. Please check back here for updates for future opening mid May-June 2024.
The primary goal for the T32 trainees will be to advance their research project. Upon appointment to the Program, the trainee’s mentoring committee will be established. This mentoring committee will include the mentor and another faculty member (often a member of the Steering Committee) chosen to complement the expertise of the mentor and best suited to support the trainee’s research plan. After an initial meeting, each trainee will meet twice annually with the mentoring committee. The committee will review research progress and advise on additional training opportunities. It will also advise on advanced technology-based programs that would be advantageous to integrate in the trainee’s research project. When appropriate, the trainee will also be guided by the mentoring committee to obtain expert technical advice and assistance from other laboratories at Sanford Burnham Prebys. The mentoring committee will advise on the preparation of fellowship proposals and, as the training period progresses, transitioning to an independent career. The Institute’s OETIS facilitates a formal annual Individual Development Planning (IDP) process for all postdoctoral trainees that includes both research project and career components. As part of this training program, the IDP will be reviewed and revised by the trainee in collaboration with the mentoring committee and used as a tool for both the committee and the trainee to openly communicate about goals and achievements.
Dr. Adams obtained his Ph.D. from the Imperial Cancer Research Institute in the United Kingdom and was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Laboratory of Dr. William Kaelin at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He was a member of the Fox Chase Cancer Center before moving to the Beatson Institute, Glasgow UK in 2010 as Head of the Epigenetics Unit. Dr. Adams’ interests are in age-associated epigenetic events that promote aging and age-related diseases, especially cancer, and his research is focused on exit from the cell cycle in the form of senescence, epigenetic control of this process, and hence epigenetic control of aging and cancer. His scientific contributions include mapping the epigenetic landscape of senescent cells, and defining the causes and consequences of this altered landscape. He coined the term “chromostasis” to describe the homeostatic mechanisms that confer epigenetic stability and suppression of age-associated diseases, including cancer, over the life course, the opposing effects of tumor suppressive oncogene-induced senescence and oncogenic activated Wnt signaling in melanocytic neoplasia.
Dr. Commisso obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 2008 and was a Postdoctoral Fellow with Dr. Dafna Bar-Sagi at the New York University School of Medicine. During his postdoctoral research, Dr. Commisso identified the mechanism by which Ras-mutated tumors augment their glutamine supply by boosting macropinocytosis-dependent protein catabolism. His studies demonstrated, for the first time, that oncogenic Ras instructs tumor cells to enhance uptake of extracellular protein via macropinocytosis in order to support cellular metabolism. Dr. Commisso is an active participant in Sanford Burnham Prebys Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, where he serves on the Admissions Committee and teaches a tutorial: “Bringing the Outside In: Endocytic Mechanisms and Therapeutics” in which students gain insight into how regulation of endocytic pathways can be harness to develop novel therapeutic strategies for human diseases.
Dr. Deshpande obtained his Ph.D. from Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, Germany in 2006. He was then a postdoctoral fellow at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Health in Munich before moving to the U.S. as an Instructor in Pediatrics in the lab of Dr. Scott Armstrong at Children’s Hospital Boston Harvard Medical School in 2009, and subsequently Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. His research interests focus on targeting epigenetic pathways for cancer drug discovery. His current research includes studies of epigenetic mechanisms of oncogenesis, and the discovery of novel actionable epigenetic targets for inhibition in heme malignancies. Dr. Deshpande identified specific epigenetic lesions in leukemias with MLL rearrangements and discovered a vulnerability of MLL-leukemias to small-molecule inhibition of the histone methyltransferase DOT1L. He regularly teaches modules in the Sanford Burnham Prebys Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences foundation course “Molecules to Systems” (M2S).
Dr. Emerling was a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Lewis Cantley at Harvard Medical School/BIDMC after obtaining her Ph.D. in 2007 from Northwestern University (Faculty mentor Navdeep Chandel). She was an Instructor after the Cantley lab moved to Weill Cornell College Medicine in 2013. Dr. Emerling is investigating the role of the phosphatidylinositol-5-phosphate 4-kinase (PI5P4K) family of enzymes, and previously found that PI5P4K is required for the proliferation of a subset of cancer cells in breast cancer and that PI5P4K deficiency restricts tumorigenesis in vivo. Dr. Emerling is currently conducting studies targeting p53 mutant HER2 amplified breast cancers through inhibition of PI5P4K.
Dr. Pasquale earned her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Parma. Her research focuses on receptor tyrosine kinases of the Eph family and their ligands, ephrins, which represent an important cell communication system in cancer. Binding to ephrin ligands on the surface of neighboring cells induces canonical signaling involving receptor clustering, autophosphorylation of tyrosine residues, and kinase activity-dependent downstream signaling. Ongoing efforts in Dr. Pasquale’s laboratory focus on the development of agents to target Eph receptors that can be used for research and translational applications. She has developed cyclic peptide antagonists that bind to the EphA4 receptor with nanomolar affinity. Such molecules can be used to specifically disrupt protein-protein signaling to modulate Eph receptor activity.
Dr. Ronai earned his Ph.D. in Tumor Immunology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. He trained as a postdoctoral fellow in molecular biology and viral carcinogenesis at Columbia University. Dr. Ronai was awarded a T32 postdoctoral training grant while at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, which he directed until his move to Sanford Burnham Prebys in 2004, where he led a different transdisciplinary NCI T32 training program. His research is directed towards understanding the regulation and function of stress response signaling pathways, in particular cooperation between ubiquitin ligases and protein kinases in the regulation of hypoxia, ER stress, and the cell cycle.
Dr. Salvesen obtained his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge University UK. He conducted postdoctoral research at Strangeways Laboratory and MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, followed by further postdoctoral training at the University of Georgia. Dr. Salvesen joined the Institute in 1996 from Duke University and is Dean of Sanford Burnham Prebys Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. In this capacity, Dr. Salvesen sets goals and processes for the graduate school, collaborates with Dr. Diane Klotz in postdoctoral training, and oversees mentoring of Research Assistant Professors. Dr. Salvesen’s research focuses on the central role enzyme pathways play in the life and death of normal and cancer cells.
Dr. Spruck obtained his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at the University of Southern California. He conducted postdoctoral research at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla and was recruited to the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in San Diego as an Assistant Professor in 2003. He joined Sanford Burnham Prebys in 2010. Dr. Spruck’s laboratory is focused on developing new, effective, and non-toxic treatments for patients with advanced cancers. The lab focuses on defining the molecular networks that regulate cancer cell division and drive metastasis progression. Recent studies have focused on viral mimicry as a therapeutic approach in cancer, which involves the activation of dormant endogenous retroviruses and retrotransposons in cancer cells to enhance immunogenicity and the effectiveness of immune checkpoint blockade immunotherapy and DNA damaging therapies.
Dr. Terskikh obtained his Ph.D. in 1997 from University of Lausanne Institute of Biochemistry, Switzerland and was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine with Dr. Irv Weissman until 2002 when he joined the Brain and Mind Institute, Swiss Polytechnic School, Lausanne as Assistant Professor. His early work identified the existence of common genes, products and pathways that operate in both hematopoietic and stem cells, and his laboratory focuses on the mechanism of self-renewal and differentiation of stem/precursor cells. Dr. Terskikh and his group also defined the molecular mechanisms involved in Sox2 function in neural stem cells and glioblastoma cancer stem cells.
Dr. Wang recieved his Ph.D. from UC San Francisco in 2015 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He has a broad background in chemical biology, with specific training and expertise in kinase inhibitors and targeted protein degradation, an emerging modality in which small molecules recruit E3 ligase complexes to target proteins to induce their ubiquitination and subsequent proteasomal degradation. Dr. Wang also has experience in pharmacological modulation of immune cells to improve anti-tumor immunity. HIs lab is focusing on developing and using chemical tools to modulate the activity of key transcriptional regulators of both tumor cells and host immune cells, with a long-term goal of identifying new therapeutic approaches.
Dr. Ware received his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from the University of California, Irvine in 1979. With Dr. Tim Springer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, he developed monoclonal antibodies that allowed him to discover several membrane proteins associated with T cell function. In 1996, he became Head of the Division of Molecular Immunology at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, and in 2010 was recruited to Sanford Burnham Prebys as Director of the Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases Center. His work has led to the discovery of several members of TNF cytokine superfamily and their signaling circuitry. Dr. Ware has founded a biotech company to help translate his discoveries into new therapies for cancer, infectious and autoimmune diseases.
Dr. Wechsler-Reya received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and completed fellowships in molecular oncology at the Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, PA, as well as a fellowship in neural development at Stanford University. He was a member of the faculty at Duke University before joining the Institute in 2010, where he is Director of the Tumor Initiation and Maintenance Program. His research focuses on the signals that control growth and differentiation in the cerebellum, and how these signals are dysregulated in the brain tumor medulloblastoma. Recently, Dr. Wechsler-Reya and his group have been developing new models of medulloblastoma and are using them to test novel therapeutic approaches. He has taught modules for the Sanford Burnham Prebys Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences M2S course.
Dr. Yip obtained his Ph.D. from Yale University in 2009 and was a postdoctoral associate in the Gerstein Lab at Yale University. His lab studies gene regulatory mechanisms by means of computational modeling. To facilitate their data-centric approach, they develop novel methods for analyzing large amounts of biological data, including those produced by cutting-edge high-throughput experiments. Their computational models provide a systematic way to investigate the functional effects of different types of perturbations to regulatory mechanisms, which creates testable hypotheses for studying human diseases and facilitates translational research.
Dr. Zhao joins us from University of California San Francisco, where he recently completed his Postdoctoral Training. His lab will focus on understanding how proteins function under different physiological and disease states from a structural biology perspective. Specifically, Dr. Zhao brings significant expertise in visualizing proteins at high resolution using cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Dr. Zhao received his Bachelor’s and Ph.D. in Medical Biophysics from the University of Toronto, Canada, where he completed 5 years of graduate training investigating rotary ATPases. He then went on and completed 5 years of postdoctoral training at UCSF studying Transient Receptor Potential ion channels.
During the first year of the training program the primary goal for the T32 trainees will be to advance their research project. By the end of the calendar year, each trainee is expected to establish their mentoring committee. Trainee progress for the first year of training will focus on advancing their research project and will be evaluated through (1) general evaluations from their preceptors and mentors; (2) performance and participation in program coursework and professional development activities; (3) research progress towards publications in scholarly journals or patents/licensing agreements indicative of research progress; and (4) participation in the broader immunology community through presentations at local, national, and/or international meetings.
The participants will participate in a formal curriculum of education and training activities. Some of these activities have been uniquely developed for this program, others are available to all Sanford Burnham Prebys trainees but will be a required component of this Program, and other additional activities will not be required but will be strongly encouraged to enhance the training experience based on individual research and career goals.
Predoctoral students will participate in the program curriculum alongside his/her postdoctoral colleagues. It is expected that early exposure of the predoctoral student to the opportunities and information traditionally only available to postdoctoral trainees will result in a more-informed Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences who will be able to select a career goal-appropriate postdoctoral training experience, move directly into a career position that does not require postdoctoral training, or possibly move directly into a career in academics without pursuing postdoctoral training, as envisaged in the NIH Director's Early Independence Awards (DP5), and reduce the amount of time often taken to determine and pursue career goals.
It is expected that trainees who have completed this Program will have received a well-rounded training experience in cutting-edge cancer research of clinical relevance and will be well prepared to embark on a variety of independent research-intensive and research-related careers in fundamental and translational oncology.
Current postdoctoral fellows
Aaron Havas, Ph.D.
Mentor: Peter Adams, Ph.D.
Research project: Mechanisms of age-dependent non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and liver cancer
Dr. Havas’s project focuses on how aging affects the development of liver cancer. Aging is one of the major risk factors for the development of liver cancer but very little is known as to how aging impacts the liver to promote cancer. Utilizing aged mice to elucidate these aging variables, Dr. Havas has identified age-associated fibrosis, elevated immune infiltration, in addition to elevated expression of Stat1 directed signaling. Furthermore, interferon signaling gene expression and immune checkpoint ligand upregulation were identified in both whole liver and isolated hepatocytes (progenitor cells for liver cancer). These pathways are further exasperated perturbed when aged mice are fed a high-fat diet as compared to young mice which may indicate how aging and poor diet can synergize to promote liver cancer in human patients. The phenotypic changes identified with age in conjunction with epigenetic and transcriptomic analysis suggest a hypothesis that aged livers are primed for cancer and exist in a “precarious balance” of both activated oncogenic and tumor suppressor upregulation. Dr. Havas is testing this hypothesis using state-of-the-art technologies including AAV directed gene expression, CRISPR mediated knockouts, and single-cell technologies.
Mentor: Brooke Emerling, Ph.D.
Research project: Targeting the metabolic vulnerabilities of cancer cells by phosphoinositide kinase inhibition
Mr. Loughran is a Ph.D. candidate in the Emerling Lab. He is currently investigating the role of the phosphatidylinositol-5-phosphate-4-kinase (PI5P4K) family of enzymes in p53 deficient breast cancer. Specifically, his research is focused on uncovering roles for phosphoinositide signaling as it pertains to cholesterol transport and utilization in the context of p53 loss-of-function.
Collin Kaufman, Ph.D.
Mentor: Alexey Terskikh, Ph.D.
Research project: Identification of differentiating compounds on glioblastoma by high-throughput drug screening
Dr. Kaufman’s project focuses on understanding the relationship between epigenetic signatures and the mechanism of small molecule actions in malignant glioblastoma (GBM), the most common and lethal brain tumor. The project will utilize the novel technique “Microscopic Imaging of Epigenetic Landscapes” (MIEL) to perform high throughput automated microscopy and capture patterns of epigenetic marks (e.g. immunolabeled acetylated and methylated histone residues) to accurately identify cell types and states. In addition, Dr. Kaufman will apply MIEL to several focused libraries of well-characterized compounds (e.g. kinase inhibitors, human metabolites, etc) using three primary GBM lines (proneural, mesenchymal, and classical), combined with the gene expression profiling of positive hits and a 3D in vitro tumor organoid assay to provide a mechanistic understanding of genes and pathways associated with the induction of GBM differentiation.
Yijuan Zhang, Ph.D.
Mentor: Cosimo Commisso, Ph.D.
Research project: Targeting macropinocytosis in cancer-associated fibroblasts for pancreatic cancer therapy
Dr. Zhang has dissected the molecular mechanism underlying the glutamine deprivation-induced macropinocytosis in pancreatic cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) and revealed that macropinocytosis in CAFs provide important amino acids to support the fitness of both CAFs and tumor cells. Depletion of CaMKK2 or ARHGEF2 expression in CAFs have been demonstrated in vivo to be promising strategies for pancreatic cancer therapy. Dr. Zhang has also been working on the ablation of macropinocytosis in pancreatic cancer for immunotherapy. Ablation of macropinocytosis has been found to change the immune landscape in pancreatic cancer to enhance immunotherapy.
- Macropinocytosis in Cancer-Associated Fibroblasts is Dependent on CaMKK2/ARHGEF2 Signaling and Functions to Support Tumor and Stromal Cell Fitness
- Automated Imaging and Analysis for the Quantification of Fluorescently Labeled Macropinosomes
- Macropinocytosis at the nexus of crosstalk in the pancreatic tumor microenvironment
Former NRSA Postdoctoral Fellows
Corey Bretz, Ph.D.
Mentor: Peter Adams, Ph.D.
Research project: Discovery and validation of the H4K20me3 demethylase as a cancer drug target
Dr. Bretz is screening for a histone demethylase that removes H4K20me3, and will validate the demethylase as a cancer drug target. Thus far, the he has conceptualized the screen, has generated Cas9 inducible cancer cell lines, has established immunofluorescent assay for H4K20me3, and is generating Suv420H2 KO in the Cas9 inducible cancer cell lines. He will design and execute all experiments, analyze the data, and write the manuscript.
Nicole Bakas, Ph.D.
Mentor: Nicholas Cosford, Ph.D.
Research project: The design, synthesis and characterization of small molecule autophagy modulators for the treatment of cancer
Dr. Bakas received her PhD in 2017 under the supervision of Prof. Michael Pirrung in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Riverside. She is currently working on the synthesis and optimization of novel small molecule autophagy modulators
Mentor: Garth Powis, D.Phil.
Research project: MPI Knockdown in combination with mannose supplements enhances EGFR-targeted therapy
Mr. Cadet is a graduate student working on his PhD in cancer biology. Mr. Cadet has a background in understanding environment that promotes genome integrity in stem cells. In his current project, he is interested in understanding the effect of hypoxia on genome stability in lung cancer cells as a way to reduce mutation load that give rise to drug resistance in lung cancer therapies. Thus far, he has demonstrated in vitro that lung cancer cells under hypoxia have low levels of phosphorylated Rad51, 53bp1 and H2Ax, which are key DNA repair damage response players, without significant changes in ataxia telangiectasia-mutated (ATM) which is responsible for phosphorylating Rad51, 53bp1 and H2Ax. Further, he has shown that hypoxic lung cancer cells evoke endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress by the high levels of the ER associated degradation (ERAD) protein, EDEM1, suggesting a degradation mechanism for hypo-glycosylated protein. Finally, he has shown the knockdown alone of MPI is not enough to restore glycosylation and/or DNA repair activity. Next, he is interested in evaluating the knockdown of MPI in combination with mannose supplements in lung cancer cells to restore protein glycosylation of hypoxic cancer cells and increase DNA repair protein activation.
Sujita Khanal, Ph.D.
Luz Marina Meneghini, Ph.D.
Mentor: Francesca Marassi, Ph.D.
Research proposal: A major challenge in cancer therapy is the tendency of cancerous cells to leave a primary tumor site and metastasize to different vital organs
It is still not well understood the molecular mechanisms that govern this process. However, it is well known that the presence of abundant plasma and serum proteins, such as vitronectin, plays an essential role in maintaining homeostatic processes including cell migration, adhesion and angiogenesis, and are exploited by malignant cells to spread and proliferate. Vitronectin is an abundant adhesive glycoprotein in blood plasma and is found associated with different extracellular matrix sites, the vessel wall, and tumor cells. It is is found as two molecular forms: a one-chain form of 75 kDa (Vn75) and a clipped form (Vn65+10) composed of two chains (65 and 10 kDa) held together by a disulfide bridge. The predominant form of Vn in plasma is monomeric, while multimeric forms are found attached to the extracellular matrix. Plasma vitronectin is a structurally pliable molecule that is composed of 459 residues with several distinct binding domains. Each domain interacts with specific molecular partners to modulate different biological processes. The N-terminal somatomedin B (SMB) domain (1-43) binds to the plasminogen activator inhibitor 1 (PAI-1) and urokinase receptor (uPAR), which plays an important role in wound healing. Next to the SMB domain is the RGD site, which is an integrin binding region involved in cell adhesion and migration. Dr. Meneghini used solution and solid-state Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy and ELISAbased binding assays to identify which residues are required for the protein−protein interactions between Vn and IGF-2. Given the potential significance of Vn and IGF-2 in various cancers, my project focuses on identifying the specific regions within Vn that mediate binding to IGF-2 by utilizing both structural and functional methods available.
Szu-Wei Lee, Ph.D.
Mentor: Cosimo Commisso, Ph.D.
Research project: Research project: Discovery and validation of novel metabolic targets in pancreatic cancer
Dr. Lee has discovered that pancreatic cancer cells employ macropinocytosis as an adaptive response to glutamine metabolism-based targeting. In collaboration with the SBP Functional Genomics Shared Resource, she performed a high-throughput kinome-wide siRNA screen to identify genes critical for orchestrating this response. She identified 22 hits from the primary screen and performed validation using secondary screening strategies, narrowing down the targets to four major modulators. Dr. Lee explored the mechanistic underpinnings of these macropinocytosis modulators with the goal of establishing combination therapies using these kinases.