Spotlight

Salk takes aim at five of the deadliest cancers

Conquering Cancer Initiative launched at special event with former Vice President Joe Biden providing keynote address

Jonas Salk used basic science to rid the world of polio and alter the course of the 20th century in a bold endeavor that changed the lives of untold millions. Now, the Salk Institute has launched a similarly bold approach to take aim at five deadly cancers: triple-negative breast, pancreatic, ovarian, lung and glioblastoma. The Conquering Cancer Initiative is a roadmap to the future of cancer care and will empower our world-renowned research team to transform cancer therapy.

The initiative was formally launched April 20 at a special event with former Vice President Joe Biden providing a keynote address to the more than 300 people in attendance.

“Cancer research comes with its own complex mazes to navigate,” said Biden in his speech. “That’s what [Salk] has been so successful at for decades—at taking on the big challenges and delivering new breakthroughs.”

Indeed, the Institute has a long history of focusing the best minds on the most difficult problems. Ever since Jonas Salk’s discovery of the first safe, effective polio vaccine, he and the Institute that bears his name have made taking on the biggest challenges a hallmark of their efforts.

Yet cancer holds a unique place in Salk’s work. Since establishing the Salk Cancer Center in 1970, the Institute has had a history of cancer breakthroughs. Nobel Prize winners, such as Robert Holley (1968) and Renato Dulbecco (1975), have played key roles in Salk’s efforts, as have other luminaries, such as Leslie Orgel, Walter Eckhart and Tony Hunter. The fruits of their efforts have been manifest in new treatments for leukemia and other cancers, as well as entirely new classes of drugs, such as tyrosine kinase inhibitors, which turned death sentence diagnoses into manageable chronic conditions.

More recently, new breakthroughs have paved the way for Salk researchers to take on some of the most difficult to treat cancers. Ronald Evans discovered receptors that are now targets in treatments for breast cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer and leukemia. Diana Hargreaves investigates common genetic mutations found in many solid tumor cancers to find new drug targets. Susan Kaech discovered that stimulating the CD40 receptor on immune T cells can suppress tumor growth. Geoffrey Wahl seeks to identify new therapeutic targets for drugs that can be tailored to individual cancer genomes.

The Initiative is led by Salk Cancer Center Director Reuben Shaw, himself a pioneer in exploring the links between metabolism and cancer that saw the testing of Metformin, a type 2 diabetes drug, in clinical trials for various cancers.

“The Salk Cancer Center will pursue scientific discoveries that fundamentally change the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of cancer,” says Shaw. Cancer research is at an inflection point requiring determination and collaboration among researchers and scientists to speed up progress, expedite personalized medicine and discover new treatments faster. By focusing on some of the hardest cancers to treat, Salk scientists aim to unlock foundational knowledge and develop powerful tools to help treat all cancers. Jonas Salk said upon the founding of the Institute, “we cannot be certain what will happen here, but we can be certain it will contribute to the welfare and understanding of man.” Conquering Cancer’s objective remains the same. To learn how you can join in Conquering Cancer, please visit www.salk.edu/conqueringcancer.

Inaugural Trailblazer Awardee Catherine Rivier

Professor Emerita Catherine Rivier was honored with the inaugural Trailblazer Award from Salk Women & Science. The Trailblazer Award recognizes outstanding achievements made by women in a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art or Mathematics) field. Recipients have pioneered changes within the STEAM fields as innovators, groundbreakers, collaborators and mentors. They have dedicated their lives to making significant advances in both their professional and personal realms. Trailblazers forge their own paths to achieve their vision.

Professor Rivier originally joined the Salk Institute in 1970, alongside Baylor University colleagues Roger Guillemin (who was her mentor and would go on to win the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) and Wylie Vale (a former Salk Institute professor and world-renowned expert on brain hormones who passed away in 2012), as well as her husband, Jean, who is an equally esteemed researcher and someone whom she credits in her success. During her tenure at Salk, Rivier studied the mechanisms through which the brain is alerted to stressors, such as psychological threats, infections or drugs, as well as the hormones used by the brain to respond to these challenges. She identified a large number of hormonal functions and new endocrine pathways throughout the body; among researchers in the field, her work is considered exceptional. Published in hundreds of papers, she earned numerous consecutive “Highly Cited Researcher” awards, her articles paving the way for many future discoveries.

Mentorship was a particularly important theme for Rivier throughout her career. “I think mentorship is important for everyone,” says Rivier, “but it’s particularly critical for women because we face many gender-specific problems. For example, younger women often asked me how I managed to bring to this world and raise two children while pursuing my career, and how I balanced work with family life and responsibilities. I always considered sharing my experience in dealing with these issues to be an important and enjoyable part of my job.” According to Betty Vale, “Catherine is an original Salk trailblazer for her contributions as a visionary scientist, early role model and mentor, and partner in founding Symphony at Salk.”

Salk faculty receive promotions

In recognition of their continued excellence in research and innovation, two Salk faculty received promotions within the institute.

Xin Jin was promoted to associate professor. Jin, an innovative neuroscientist providing significant insights into neurological and psychiatric diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, joined Salk in 2012. He uses a variety of tools to uncover the underlying neural circuits and molecular mechanisms of how actions are learned and selected. Part of Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, his team recently discovered that the concentration of a brain chemical called dopamine governs decisions about actions so precisely that measuring the level in mice right before a decision allows the researchers to accurately predict the outcome. In addition, his lab has used cutting-edge molecular tools to dissect how the different cell types in the downstream brain regions work together with dopamine for control of actions. The work could open new avenues for treating disorders both in cases where people cannot properly initiate an action, such as Parkinson’s, and in ones where they cannot stop performing certain actions, as in obsessive-compulsive disorder or drug addiction.

Dmitry Lyumkis was promoted to assistant professor. Lyumkis is well known for his significant, early contributions to the up- and-coming eld of single-particle cryo-electron microscopy, a cutting-edge technology that enables the visualization of large proteins and protein complexes under near-native conditions. He uses this technology to build three- dimensional models of the imaged objects that reveal never- before-seen aspects of protein function to show, for example, the core components behind how HIV and other retroviruses insert viral DNA into the host genome and replicate. Lyumkis came to the Institute in 2014 as the inaugural Salk Fellow, part of a program designed to bring scientists from broad disciplines to the Institute to trigger innovation and perpetuate the collaborative spirit of Salk. A 2015 recipient of the prestigious National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award, Lyumkis has consistently pursued innovative approaches to major contemporary challenges in biomedical research.

Three Salk scientists named to endowed chairs

Salk scientists Katherine Jones, Susan Kaech and Gerald Shadel have been recognized for their contributions and dedication to advancing science through research by being named to endowed chairs at the Institute.

Jones, named to the Edwin K. Hunter Chair, serves in Salk’s Regulatory Biology Laboratory. Her work focuses on the genetic processes involved in the expression of HIV and cancer genes, as well as on other disease research. The Edwin K. Hunter Chair was established in 2013 thanks to a generous philanthropic collaboration between the Olive Tupper Foundation, the Chambers Medical Foundation, the Jenkins Family Charitable Institute, and the Joe W. and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation. It is named for Edwin K. Hunter, attorney and member of the Salk Institute Board of Trustees.

Kaech has been named to the NOMIS Foundation Chair and leads the NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis (NCIMP). Kaech is internationally recognized for her efforts to understand how memory T cells are produced during infection and vaccination, how they function and why they can fail to induce long-term immunity during immunization. The NOMIS Foundation Chair was established in 2010 thanks to a $6.5 million gift from the Switzerland-based organization.

Shadel, who joined Salk in early 2018 and has been appointed to the Audrey Geisel Chair in Biomedical Science, is one of the newest leaders within Salk’s Molecular and Cell Biology Lab. His work focuses on mitochondria, known as the powerhouses of the cell, and their role in aging, cancer, and metabolic and degenerative diseases. The Audrey Geisel Chair in Biomedical Science was established in 2012 thanks to a generous gift from San Diego philanthropist Audrey Geisel. It is one of several chairs made possible by the Joan Klein Jacobs and Irwin Mark Jacobs Senior Scientist Endowed Chair Challenge.

Ronald Evans awarded prestigious honors

Salk Professor Ronald Evans has received two prizes, each providing $10,000 to advance the research of his lab. The first, the Bert and Natalie Vallee Award in Biomedical Science, was established by the Vallee Foundation to recognize international achievements in the sciences essential to medicine. The second, the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, was initiated through a bequest to Columbia University and honors scientists who have made outstanding contributions to basic research in the fields of biology and biochemistry.

As professor and director of the Gene Expression Laboratory, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and the March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology, Evans has been instrumental in reshaping medical research. Recent discoveries that have taken shape in his lab include finding the gene responsible for enabling endurance exercise and muscle repair, as well as identifying a modified form of vitamin D that may offer new treatments for diabetes and cancer.

Janelle Ayres wins Blavatnik National Award for Young Scientists

Salk Associate Professor Janelle Ayres has been named one of three winners of the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists, one of the world’s largest unrestricted prizes for early career scientists. Ayres, the laureate in the life sciences category, will receive $250,000 for her pioneering research in physiology and the study of how bacteria interact with humans.

Ayres’ work resides at the leading edge of understanding infections and treatments. Rather than seeking out new antibiotics to treat the rising rates of drug-resistant illnesses, Ayres seeks to create drugs that allow individuals to survive and tolerate disease—i.e., minimize the amount of damage infection inflicts—while it runs its course. She has received many awards for her work, including a DARPA Young Faculty Award, a Searle Scholars award and a Ray Thomas Edward Foundation Award.

Salk Assistant Professor Saket Navlakha named Pew Scholar

The Pew Charitable Trusts announced that Saket Navlakha of Salk’s Integrative Biology Laboratory is one of 22 researchers named a 2018 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. Additionally, Navlakha is one of five Pew Scholars also supported by the Kathryn W. Davis Peace by Pieces Fund to investigate health challenges in the brain as it ages.

Navlakha, who holds the Pioneer Fund Developmental Chair at Salk, develops new algorithms to understand the interactions and dynamics of complex biological networks by bridging theoretical computer science and systems biology. By mining massive amounts of data in new ways, he aims to reveal the evolution and organization of molecular and cellular networks. Navlakha also studies “algorithms in nature”—for example, how groups of distributed molecules and cells communicate and process information to collectively solve computational problems. Discovering such shared principles can lead to the design of improved computing algorithms and can provide a way to understand, quantify and predict the behavior of large, distributed biological systems.

Salk Professor Tony Hunter receives Pezcoller Foundation-AACR Award, Tang Prize

Tony Hunter, who holds an American Cancer Society Professorship at the Salk Institute, was awarded the 2018 Pezcoller Foundation-AACR International Award for Extraordinary Achievement in Cancer Research, one of the most prestigious honors in the field. According to the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and the Pezcoller Foundation, the prize “recognizes a scientist of international renown who has made a major scientific discovery in basic or translational cancer research.” The Pezcoller-AACR award includes €75,000 (approx. $87,000) and was awarded at a ceremony held at the Teatro Sociale in Trento, Italy, in late May. Hunter also gave a special lecture at the AACR Annual Meeting in Chicago in April.

In addition, Hunter was also recently named one of four recipients of the 2018 Tang Prize. The award recognizes and encourages “original research and major contributions in biopharmaceutical science.” The other three Tang Prizes are given for sustainable development, sinology and law. Held in Taipei, the Tang Prize ceremony included a lecture from Hunter as part of a weeklong event and NT$50,000,000 (around $1.5 million) for his research, split evenly with two other researchers. The Pezcoller Foundation-AACR Award and Tang Prize are the latest of many notable awards for Hunter, including the Sjöberg Prize for Cancer Research, the Royal Medal in Biological Sciences, the Clifford Prize for Cancer Research and the Wolf Prize in Medicine.

Nicola Allen awarded grant from Coins for Alzheimer’s Research Trust

Salk Assistant Professor Nicola Allen has received a grant for $112,500 from the Coins for Alzheimer’s Research Trust. The award, supported by the Rotary Clubs of North America, will enable a two-year study to identify how support cells called astrocytes regulate the brain when healthy; to understand how astrocytes go wrong in Alzheimer’s disease; and to test whether astrocytes can be used as a therapy to repair damaged neurons.

Allen, who holds the Hearst Foundation Development Chair in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, is internationally recognized for the caliber of her research. Allen’s other accolades include being named a 2015 Pew Scholar, a Human Frontier Science Program Long Term Fellow and an EMBO Long Term Fellow. Allen’s previous findings include the discovery of a class of proteins secreted by astrocytes that help neurons form synapses, the critical spaces between neurons that allow individual cells to communicate with one another and send signals to the rest of the body.

Neuroscientist Margarita Behrens named first research professor at Salk

Margarita Behrens recently was promoted to research professor with non-tenure status, the first appointment of its kind at Salk. Her promotion recognizes her enormous contributions to neuroscience. Behrens, a Salk staff scientist in the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory since 2009, received her master’s degree in biochemistry from the Universidad de Chile, in Santiago, and her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Universidad Autónoma, in Madrid. She conducted postdoctoral research in the neurology department of Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis, before arriving at Salk where she has made tremendous contributions to understanding brain circuitry implicated in a range of mental disorders, including schizophrenia and autism. Her work was critical to Salk’s receipt of a $25 million grant from the BRAIN Initiative, a five-year project designed to revolutionize humanity’s understanding of the brain by systematically identifying and cataloging its many cell types.

Recognizing that scientific progress has become increasingly dependent on new technologies, Salk has set out to support scientists such as Behrens who have technology-based capabilities that can support research programs across the Institute. The Institute’s senior faculty and administration established a formal research professor track to expand career advancement opportunities to staff scientists who maintain individual labs and are engaged in research that is highly collaborative with existing programs.

Eiman Azim selected for McKnight Scholar Award

Eiman Azim earned a prestigious McKnight Scholar Award for his work in neuroscience. The McKnight Foundation gives out no more than six of these awards each year to encourage “neuroscientists at early stages of their careers to focus on disorders of learning and memory.” As part of the award, Azim will receive $225,000 over three years in support of his research.

Azim currently serves as an assistant professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory. His research uses a multidisciplinary approach to identify how neural circuits solve the challenges of motor control. He leverages genetic and viral tools, anatomical analysis, electrophysiological recording, imaging and detailed motor behavioral tests to advance his studies. Held in high regard for his efforts, he has also received an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Kathryn W. Davis Aging Brain Scholar award, and is both a Pew and Searle Scholar.

Joanne Chory wins Gruber Genetics Prize

Salk Professor Joanne Chory recently was named a recipient of the Gruber Foundation’s 2018 Gruber Genetics Prize in recognition of her “groundbreaking work in identifying the basic regulatory and biochemical mechanisms underlying the development of plants.” The award includes $500,000 for continued research, which Chory will share with Elliot Meyerowitz of Caltech in Pasadena.

Chory’s efforts leading Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, in addition to her roles as professor, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and the Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology, have been widely acclaimed. She recently was awarded the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences and was made a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. Her work focuses on creating Salk Ideal Plants, genetically modified plants that store more carbon in their root networks to help mitigate the effects of climate change, which form a key piece of Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative.

Salk Institute receives $1.5 million for Alzheimer’s research from NANOS Co., Ltd.

Korean company funds laboratory devoted to stem cell–based aging research

On May 18, the Salk Institute announced a $1.5 million gift from NANOS Co., Ltd., of the Republic of Korea to establish the NANOS Alzheimer’s Disease Stem Cell Suite, which will serve as a cell bank focused on Alzheimer’s. The new suite will allow Salk scientists to collect samples and data from a large number of individuals to more accurately pinpoint processes, like DNA repair, that go awry in Alzheimer’s and to identify novel avenues for intervention. By collecting skin samples from hundreds of individuals and transforming these cells into neurons in the NANOS Alzheimer’s Disease Stem Cell Suite, Salk scientists will be able to analyze these brain cells and test novel therapeutic compounds.

Salk receives “four stars” from Charity Navigator for Seventh Consecutive Time

The Salk Institute’s strong financial health and continued commitment to accountability and transparency have earned it its seventh consecutive four-star (out of four) rating from Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent charity and nonprofit evaluator. Receiving the highest ranking puts Salk in a distinguished class of nonprofits—only 4 percent of nonprofits evaluated achieve that status seven times in a row. In a time when traditional sources of research funding are becoming more scarce and donors are increasingly attuned to how the organizations they support leverage philanthropic gifts, Salk remains committed to being a place donors can support with confidence.

Salk Institute ranked among top 5 nonprofits in the world for high-quality research in life sciences

The Salk Institute has been ranked one of the top 5 nonprofit institutions in the world focused on the life sciences and one of the top 10 nonprofits generally, according to a report, known as the Nature Index, released by Springer Nature on June 7. The rankings are based on Nature Index data from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2017.

The Nature Index tracks by country and institution the research published in 82 high-quality science journals each year, counting both the total number of papers and the share of authorship of each paper.

The Nature Index is compiled by Nature Research and is among their wider efforts to provide the research community with relevant information about the state of global science and publishing trends. The Nature Index database was launched in November 2014 and provides a close-to-real-time proxy for high-quality research output at the institutional, regional and national levels.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Latest discoveries, events & more.