Newswise — PHILADELPHIA— (Nov. 6, 2017)— Scientists at The Wistar Institute, an international biomedical research leader in cancer, immunology and infectious diseases, have secured more than $16.5 million in funding throughout the summer and early fall of 2017.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded more than $15.6 million to the Institute:

  • The Wistar Institute Cancer Center secured a National Research Service Award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for $2,988,662 to support two predoctoral and eight postdoctoral trainees for the next five years. This grant has been continuously awarded to Wistar for 40 years and reflects a long-standing and successful program that prepares trainees for independent careers in basic and translational cancer research. Maureen E. Murphy, Ph.D., professor and program leader in the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program, associate vice president for Faculty Affairs, was the lead principal investigator on this institutional grant.
  • Rugang Zhang, Ph.D., deputy director of Wistar’s Cancer Center and professor and co-program leader of the Gene Expression and Regulation Program, was awarded two grants to extend long-term, high-impact research projects for another five years each. One NIH grant for $2,116,125 will continue to fund Zhang’s research on the mechanisms that govern gene expression changes during cellular senescence, or the process of irreversible arrest of cell proliferation, to understand its role in cancer and response to therapy. A second NIH grant for $2,030,625 will extend support for the study of epigenetic mechanisms that regulate ovarian cancer progression, with the ultimate goal of identifying novel therapeutic approaches for this lethal malignancy.
  • Meenhard Herlyn, D.V.M., D.Sc., Caspar Wistar Professor in Melanoma Research, director of The Wistar Institute Melanoma Research Center and professor in the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program, is the principal investigator of a Clinical and Translational Science Award for PDX (patient-derived xenografts) Development and Trial Centers (PDTCs). This funding opportunity was established to coordinate collaborative, large-scale development and pre-clinical testing of targeted therapeutic agents in patient-derived models to advance cancer precision medicine. Besides Wistar, the PDTC includes MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Pennsylvania. The initial phase of this grant will provide $2,885,586 over two years, extendable to five years for a total budget of more than $7 million.
  • Jessie Villanueva, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program and member of The Wistar Institute Melanoma Research Center, received a $2,190,254 grant over five years to support her research on the role of TERT in melanoma. TERT is a protein component of telomerase, the enzyme that extends the extremities of chromosomes to maintain the integrity of the genome through cell divisions and aging. Because TERT expression is increased in melanoma due to frequent mutations in the regulatory part of the gene, the Villanueva Lab will dissect the contribution of TERT to melanoma survival and progression and evaluate the efficacy of targeting TERT as a therapeutic strategy.
  • Ken-ichi Noma, Ph.D., associate professor in the Gene Expression and Regulation Program, received a grant for $1,654,780 over four years to study the molecular mechanisms that connect three-dimensional genome organization and regulation of gene transcription. The project goal is to elucidate how the protein condensin, which controls assembly and segregation of chromosomes during cell division, also regulates gene expression through interaction with the machinery that carries out transcription.
  • Hsin Yao Tang, Ph.D., managing director of Wistar’s Proteomics and Metabolomics Facility, received an NCI Research Specialist Award totaling $942,675 over five years. This award is designed to support the research career of exceptional staff scientists that work within core facilities and shared resources, providing vital support to the biomedical research enterprise.
  • Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen, Ph.D., assistant professor in Wistar’s Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center, was awarded a $507,275 grant over two years from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). This grant will support research on the role of particular sugar molecules that are found circulating in the blood of patients with HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders. The project goal is to define new diagnostics and/or treatment options for ameliorating cognitive impairment in this vulnerable population. Abdel-Mohsen also received funding for $40,000 through the NIH-funded Penn Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) at the University of Pennsylvania. This pilot grant will fund research to identify novel aspects of HIV latency, or the persistence of silently hiding virus in the immune cells of patients during antiretroviral therapy. He will explore the hypothesis that latently infected cells harbor on their surface a unique profile of sugar molecules, which may be used as a novel signature to identify and target HIV latency.
  • Elizabeth Duperret, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the Weiner Lab, received a National Research Service Award postdoctoral fellowship for $172,926 over three years to investigate the combination of two novel therapeutic approaches for the treatment of prostate and pancreatic cancer. Specifically, Duperret will combine the Weiner Lab’s novel DNA vaccine technology, which boosts anti-tumor immune activity, with alterations of the tissue surrounding the tumor to enhance T cell infiltration and activation.
  • Hildegund Ertl, M.D., Caspar Wistar Professor in Vaccine Research and professor in Wistar’s Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center, was awarded a contract by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the development of a novel HIV vaccine. The first stage of this grant will support Ertl’s research for $153,447 for a year with the possibility of extension for up to seven years for a total budget of $16,169,285.

Wistar scientists also received non-federal funding for more than $850,000:

  • Qing Chen, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Immunology, Microenvironment and Metastasis Program and scientific director of Wistar’s Imaging Facility, was awarded a Susan G. Komen Career Catalyst Research Grant totaling $450,000 over three years. This grant will support Chen’s research to dissect the crosstalk between breast cancer cells and astrocytes, the most numerous cells in the brain, during development of brain metastasis. The goal is to identify potential targets to prevent and treat breast cancer brain metastasis for which limited therapeutic options are available.
  • Erica Stone, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Immunology, Microenvironment and Metastasis Program, was the recipient of a Bristol-Myers Squibb-Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) Young Investigator Award for $225,000 over three years. Stone will investigate a potential mechanism of resistance to immune checkpoint inhibitors, a class of drugs that take the breaks off the immune system enhancing the patient’s antitumor response and increasing the life-span of patients with advanced, metastatic melanoma. This research will test whether blocking a specific molecule expressed by tumor-killing T cells in conjunction with a checkpoint inhibitor therapy will lead to better therapeutic efficacy.
  • Jason Lamontagne, D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Lieberman Lab, received The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Career Development Fellow Award for $180,000 over three years to support a research project on the functions of an Epstein-Barr virus protein called EBNA1 in regulating host gene expression. Since Epstein-Barr infection is associated with a wide range of human cancers, a deeper understanding of the functions of EBNA1 may expand our understanding of the role of Epstein-Barr virus in cancer development and validate EBNA1 as a potential therapeutic target.


The Wistar Institute is an international leader in biomedical research with special expertise in cancer research and vaccine development. Founded in 1892 as the first independent nonprofit biomedical research institute in the United States, Wistar has held the prestigious Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute since 1972. The Institute works actively to ensure that research advances move from the laboratory to the clinic as quickly as possible.