AACR selects Sanford Burnham Prebys scientist as NextGen Star

| Written by Monica May
Cosimo Commisso, Ph.D., Sanford Burnham Prebys

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) has named Cosimo Commisso, Ph.D., assistant professor in Sanford Burnham Prebys’ NCI-designated Cancer Center, as a NextGen Star. 

The program strives to increase the visibility of early career scientists at the organization’s annual meeting—one of the year’s largest gatherings of cancer researchers—and to support their professional development and advancement. The 2019 AACR Annual Meeting was held from March 29 to April 3 in Atlanta and attracted more than  21,000 scientists and clinicians. 

As a NextGen star, Commisso was featured on AACR’s website and was invited to give a presentation during a special “NextGen Star” session. He also presented in a session titled, “Features and Functions of the Pancreatic Tumor Microenvironment.” Both talks were well attended.

Commisso’s presentations focused on pancreatic cancer, a deadly and difficult-to-detect tumor. Less than 10 percent of people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are alive five years later. More than 56,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019 and its incidence is on the rise. Pancreatic cancer is on track to become the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. next year, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. New studies have linked military service to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, perhaps due to exposure to herbicides such as Agent Orange.

Commisso is working to halt pancreatic cancer growth by studying the way cells internalize nutrients, called macropinocytosis. In this process, cells extend their membranes to capture nutrients in their surrounding environment—similar to how humans swallow a pill by encasing it in water. 

“We’ve discovered that pancreatic tumors that have a mutation in the RAS gene—which occurs in almost all cases—fuel their growth by kicking macropinocytosis into overdrive,” says Commisso. “By halting macropinocytosis, essentially cutting off the cancer cells’ fuel supply, we hope we can develop effective, much-needed treatments for pancreatic cancer.”

In his NextGen Star presentation, Commisso detailed how macropinocytosis is dialed up or down depending on nutrient availability. Studies performed by Szu-Wei Lee, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Commisso laboratory, indicate that RAS-mutated pancreatic tumors use two forms of macropinocytosis—one that is “always on” (constitutive) and another that is nutrient dependent.

“Uncovering the molecular differences between these two pathways could yield personalized targets that selectively target pancreatic cancer cells,” says Commisso. “In addition to pancreatic tumors, new evidence shows that lung, prostate and bladder cancers highjack macropinocytosis to keep growing. This means our work in pancreatic cancer may also lead to new treatments for these other tumor types.”

Watch Dr. Commisso explain his lab's focus

View the full list of the NextGen stars 

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