Childhood cancer trailblazer Lukas Chavez joins Sanford Burnham Prebys

Lukas Chavez, Ph.D.

Lukas Chavez, Ph.D., has joined Sanford Burnham Prebys as an assistant professor in the Tumor Initiation and Maintenance Program to continue his research on chromatin and gene regulation in childhood brain cancers.

“I am delighted to welcome Lukas to Sanford Burnham Prebys,” says President and CEO David A. Brenner, M.D. “His research is at the forefront of a novel approach to treat childhood cancers that may have a significant impact on the lives of people affected by these devastating diseases.”

Chavez’ research focuses on circular DNA fragments called ecDNA that are detached from normal chromosomes. These DNA circles allow cancer cells to produce and transcribe many copies of cancer-causing genes.

“EcDNA has very unique properties that we are only starting to understand.” says Chavez. “My hope is to identify improved therapeutic strategies that block the formation and replication of these DNA circles. This could lead to a revolution in the way we treat some highly aggressive childhood cancers, and also other tumor types driven by ecDNA.”

Although researchers have known about ecDNA for more than 50 years, DNA circles have proven difficult to study because researchers have lacked the tools to determine their structure and function. Chavez and his team have developed computational biology tools that help them study ecDNA in whole tumor tissues and on the single-cell level with unprecedented efficiency.

“Computational biology has helped us make great strides in the field of ecDNA,” says Chavez. “It’s a solution for making sense of genetic data from thousands of childhood cancer datasets—ultimately revealing new targets for cancer treatment.”

Chavez’s research has already begun to shape the cancer research landscape. In 2020, he received a St. Baldricks Scholar Award for his work on childhood medulloblastoma. These grants help support the most promising early-career researchers in childhood cancers and are awarded by the St. Baldricks Foundation, the largest charitable funder of childhood cancer research. He is also a member and the dedicated director of the Neuro-Oncology Molecular Tumor Board at Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego.

Chavez joins the Institute following five years at UC San Diego. He completed his Ph.D. at Free University Berlin and has also held positions at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology and the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany.

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