Principal Investigators

Julie K. Schwarz, MD, PhD

Julie Schwarz, MD, PhD is the Director of the Cancer Biology Division and an R01 funded investigator.  Her laboratory research includes large scale studies using human tumor specimens to study the biologic pathways that regulate treatment response in cervical cancer. These studies have employed gene expression, micro-RNA expression and genomic analyses.   She has identified alterations in expression of genes from the PI3K/Akt pathway that are associated with treatment response in cervical cancer.   Most recently, she has identified genomic mutations in PIK3CA and PTEN that are associated with treatment response and glucose uptake. She is currently studying how these alterations influence cervical cancer glucose metabolism and how metabolic differences may influence the response to radiation and chemotherapy.

Dr. Schwarz performs clinical research that focuses on the use of post-therapy FDG-PET imaging as an indicator of response to chemo-radiation therapy. The majority of these studies focused on cervical cancer, which has no reliable molecular biomarker for the evaluation of treatment response. These studies were instrumental in establishing the 3 month post-therapy FDG-PET scan as a reliable tool for monitoring treatment response and integrating this strategy into routine practice for cervical cancer patients.

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Buck Rogers, PhD

Buck Rogers, PhD is a NIH funded Professor of Radiation Oncology and the Associate Director of the Cancer Biology Division. Dr. Rogers has more than 20 years of experience in radiochemistry, gene therapy, and novel radiation therapeutics. He has extensive experience in the development of radiolabeled antibodies and peptides for targeted imaging and therapy of cancer. In particular, he investigated copper-64 which is used for positron-emission tomography (PET) imaging and potentially for therapy. These studies were very important in the development of new chelators that have allowed the use of Cu-64 in clinical trials. Dr. Rogers tags proteins and peptides with radioactivity in combination with a gene transfer method to develop a novel imaging/therapy paradigm with a team of collaborators.   This approach uses an adenoviral gene therapy vector that encodes a gene for a cell surface receptor. This receptor can then be targeted with radioactive substrates for imaging or therapy applications. These studies have had major implications in the field of gene therapy in that these gene transfer vectors can now be imaged to determine the location and extent of gene transfer as well as potential synergistic therapy with the appropriate radionuclides. Lastly, Dr. Rogers has led research that targets the gastrin-releasing peptide receptor (GRPR), which is a G-protein coupled receptor and been shown to be upregulated in a variety of cancers. Bombesin is a fourteen amino acid peptide that binds with high affinity to GRPR. He has tagged bombesin or bombesin analogues with radionuclides for PET imaging of GRPR-expressing tumors in preclinical models. He has evaluated several analogues and several radionuclides. These studies have led to dramatic improvement in peptide radiopharmaceuticals and their evaluation in clinical studies.

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Dennis Hallahan, MD

Dennis Hallahan, MD has 20+ years of uninterrupted NCI/NIH funding.  The Hallahan laboratory has discovered several molecular targets for drug development in cancer.  Discovery strategies have included Proteomics and lipidomics.  These discoveries have gone on to preclinical and clinical drug development of a number of novel cancer drugs.  Most notable are inhibitors of PLA2 and the LPA receptor.  More recently, the Hallahan laboratory has identified TIP1 and GRP78 as molecular targets to enhance the efficacy of radiation therapy.  Dr. Hallahan’s lab has developed monoclonal antibodies and scFv antibodies to radiation inducible neoantigens that are specific to cancer.  These antibodies activate immune effector cells. They have also been conjugated to therapeutic agents such as radiopharmaceuticals.  More importantly, antibodies to radiation inducible TIP1 and GRP78 show efficacy in vitro and in mouse models of human cancer.  The Hallahan laboratory has developed several drug delivery systems using nanoparticles and liposomes.  These particles have been conjugated to peptide ligands that bind to radiation inducible receptors in cancer.  This approach has increased the bioavailability of doxorubicin and paclitaxel specifically to cancer.  Pre-clinical efficacy and proof of concept studies have been completed.  Current research combines our lead cancer specific ligand conjugated to PEG in liposomal formulation.

Drugs that have entered clinical trials include a radiation inducible therapeutic gene that advanced through Phase 3 clinical trials.  Radiation guided drug delivery using peptidomimetic completed feasibility studies.  A molecular targeted radiation protector is presently in a phase 2 clinical trial.

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For more information about research opportunities in Dr. Hallahan’s laboratory, please contact Karma Kerns (kkerns@wustl.edu).

Kareem Azab, PhD

Kareem Azab, PhD conducts multi-disciplinary translational research with a focus on treatment and imaging of cancer, including hematologic malignancies and solid tumors. He works intensively on understanding the biological mechanisms of cancer progression and metastasis, development of novel drugs, targeted delivery of therapeutic agents (from nano-sized systems up to medical devices), and on developing patient-derived, tissue engineered pre-clinical models to study cancer.

Learn more about current research in Dr. Azab’s lab »

Cancer biology

We are interested in understanding the biological mechanisms of proliferation and metastasis in cancer, including multiple myeloma, lymphoma and others. We are interested in understanding the mechanism involved in cell trafficking of cancer cells during proliferation metastasis.

Medicinal chemistry

We study the use of conjugated copolymers to increase the specificity of chemo and radiotherapy. We are interested both radio and chemotherapeutic agents, and we have a special interest in Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT), which is referred to the radiation generated from the capture reaction of thermal or epithermal neutrons by 10Boron isotopes.

Localized Drug Delivery

Our goal is to develop drug delivery systems that will increase the effectivity and reduce the side effects of existing the treatments. We focus on local delivery approaches, where we biodegradable medical implants for localized and high dose delivery of therapeutic agents in the tumor bed, and decrease the dose to all other parts of the body.

Tissue Engineering

Our goal is to develop a 3D-Tissue Engineered Bone Marrow (3DTEBM) which provides an improved model for understanding tumor biology and drug resistance of MM in the context of the malignant BM microenvironment; and it provides personalized prediction of therapeutic efficacy in individual MM patients.

Nano-therapy

Our goal is to develop nano-particles with different sizes (70-250nm) with different loads including chemotherapy, cell signaling inhibitors, radioisotopes (for therapy and imaging), and fluorescent dyes for imaging. The nano-particles can be targeted using different targeting moieties (such as antibodies, receptors and ligands) to specifically target a variety of tumor types including multiple myeloma, lymphoma, leukemia; as well as brain, lung cervix, breast. head and neck lung, and other cancers.

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Aadel Chaudhuri, MD, PhD

Dr. Chaudhuri’s research focuses on cell-free nucleic acids, and specifically on the identification and measurement of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) as a cancer biomarker. In a paper published in Cancer Discovery in 2017, he and his colleagues showed that they could measure ctDNA in the blood of non-metastatic lung cancer patients shortly after completing treatment and months before standard-of-care CT imaging. Post-treatment ctDNA detection served as a biomarker for ultimate disease relapse and survival, and genomic analyses of the ctDNA identified candidacy for precision medicine drugs including tyrosine kinase inhibitors and immune checkpoint inhibitors. Dr. Chaudhuri is interested in applying these findings to clinical practice, exploring ctDNA as a biomarker in other malignancies, and using ctDNA as a tool to monitor responses to radiotherapy and immunotherapy.

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Hong Chen, PhD

Hong Chen, PhD, joined the Washington University faculty in 2015 as an Assistant Professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and of radiation oncology at the School of Medicine. Dr. Chen earned her Ph.D. degree in Bioengineering from the University of Washington in 2011. After graduation, she worked as a senior fellow in the School of Medicine at the University of Washington. From 2012 to 2015, she was a postdoctoral research scientist in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Columbia University. Professor Chen’s research focuses on medical ultrasound. Her goal is to develop the ultrasound-based image-guided drug delivery platform for cancer therapy through combining the functions of ultrasound, integrating physical acoustics with the development of medical ultrasound devices and bridging basic and translational research. She has obtained significant training and made scientific contributions in physical acoustics, therapeutic ultrasound, and ultrasound imaging. She received the RWB Stephen’s prize at the World Congress in Ultrasonics/Ultrasonics International in 2005. She also earned the Young Investigator Award at the 2014 Focused Ultrasound International Symposium in recognition of her “outstanding research in the field of focused ultrasound”.

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David T. Curiel, MD, PhD

David Curiel, MD, PhD develops gene transfer vectors to advance the human application of gene therapy. To overcome the limited capacity of available viral vectors to deliver large genes, Dr. Curiel conceptualized an approach whereby heterologous DNA was carried on the exterior of the virus rather than configured within the parental virus genome. This design is a conceptual departure from all historical vector paradigms. This new system embodies elements of viral vectors and non-viral vector configured into a single particle. This design takes advantage of both classes of vector agents in a wide range of applied contexts, including a human clinical trial of cancer vaccination in Europe. This vector design was featured in a news item in the journal Science. In addition, this concept of derived “mosacic” vectors, now represents a legitimate sub-field within gene therapy. In addition, the “mosacic” design paradigms resulted in the Development of an Ad-AAV Chimera: Piggy Backing Vectors Through Camelids.

Dr. Curiel identified a deficiency at the primary adenoviral receptor “CAR” in human primary tumor not noted in immortalized human cell lines. The new universal recognition of “CAR deficiency” characterizing human epithelial carcinomas clearly constituted the basis of tumor cell resistance to Ad-mediated transduction, and thus failure of cancer gene therapy interventions. In addition, the spurious predictive value of immortalized human cell lines at (and their murine xenograft model derivations), suggested the need for more stringent models. Finally, the recognition of tumor cell CAR levels limiting Ad gene transfer efficacy suggested the need for Ads which embodied “CAR independent” gene transfer capacity. To this end, he endeavored a series of gene capsid modifications to alter Ad tropism to achieve CAR-independent infection of tumor cells.  A number of modifications were defined that achieved this biologic goal with dramatic enhancements in Ad infectivity. These adenoviral vectors have now been applied in human clinical trials for cancer.  He modified an adenovirus virotherapy agent that dramatically augmented its oncolytic potency.  On this basis, the FDA has approved his application for Fast Track status for malignant gliomas.

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Curiel Lab

For more information about research opportunities in Dr. Curiel’s laboratory, please contact Amanda Baker (amanda.baker@wustl.edu).

Carl DeSelm, MD, PhD

Carl DeSelm, MD, PhD, joined the Washington University faculty in June 2018 as an assistant professor of Radiation Oncology with a laboratory in the Bursky Center for Human Immunotherapy and Immunology Programs (CHiiPs). His research is based upon several fundamental ideas that have surfaced in recent decades. The first is that within each patient are immune cells dedicated to finding and destroying microscopic organisms that are far more sophisticated than any drug developed by man. The second is that these immune cells, generally T cells, can be modified to find and destroy tumor cells, using a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). Using this approach, large, advanced, or aggressive cancers can sometimes be completely eliminated after a single treatment with the patient’s own modified immune cells. A major question remains – how do we achieve this result for all cancers, and all patients.

One major obstacle to applying this technique to all cancers is the difficulty in finding target molecules that are only expressed on the tumor cells, and not on critical normal tissues. Further, if not every tumor cell expresses the target molecule, the cancer will not be cured, as the negative cells that escape will eventually grow back. One major focus of the lab is identifying novel ways by which CAR cellular therapy can overcome the problem of antigen escape, to fully eliminate disseminated, heterogeneous cancer cells.

Additional problems exist in solid tumors, including poor penetration of the tumor by CAR T cells, and inherent resistance of particular tumors to T cell killing. The mechanisms by which these occur, and methods to overcome them, are active areas of investigation within the laboratory.

Radiation therapy is known to modulate the immune response in a variety of ways, but its effect on cellular therapy is poorly understood. An additional major focus in the laboratory is to examine the effect of radiation therapy on the systemic and local tumor response to CAR T cell therapy, and develop CARs that function synergistically with radiation and other highly effective treatment modalities.

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Stephanie Markovina, MD, PhD

Stephanie Markovina, MD, PhD studies novel metrics to serve dual purpose as biomarkers for prognosis and response to radiation therapy, as well as therapeutic targets for human solid tumors such as cervical and anal cancers.  She studies the role of Squamous Cell Carcinoma Antigen (SCCA), a member of the SERPIN superfamily, and its role in tumor cell resistance to radiation and chemotherapy.  Her lab is investigating the role of the lysosome in tumorigenesis and response to anti-cancer therapies.  Research goals ultimately are to better stratify of patients prior to initiation of treatment, or early into treatment will allow individualized precision therapy for patients and ultimately better outcomes.  Dr. Markovina hopes to understand the molecular role of these biomarkers in cancer pathogenesis and tumor resistance to anticancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy, and that this better understanding will lead to identification of novel therapeutic targets.

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Girdhar Sharma, PhD

Girdhar Sharma, PhD is an R01 funded investigator who studies the molecular regulation of stem cell radiation response. Goal of his research work is to delineate the molecular signaling and epigenetic regulators of normal stem cell hypersensitivity to ionizing radiation (IR) and validate them as molecular targets for radioprotection. His laboratory uses multifaceted approaches to unravel the novel associations between signaling molecules, epigenetic modifiers and cellular differentiation states; in the regulation of stem cell specific DNA damage response (DDR) and apoptotic responses (AR). Insights into the mechanistic interplay of signal transduction networks and chromatin states unique to stem cells, as against their non-stem progeny is crucial for developing therapeutic prevention/ intervention strategies of radioprotection; to effectively minimize IR induced stem cell dropout and the associated debilitating side effects of cancer radiotherapy. Investigation of normal tissue stem cells compared to the differentiated non-stem cells in vivo has led to identification of key molecular targets to modulate radiosensitivity. His laboratory is delineating the dual role of PP2A phosphatase in stem cell DDR and AR, and characterizing specific and cumulative roles of histone H3K56ac, H3K9ac/me and pH2AX-Y142 in stem cell IR responses and validating the radioprotection efficacy of these pluralistic regulators of stem cell radiosensitivity (Jacobs KM et al. Mol Biol Cell. 27(8)1332-45 (2016). PMID: 26941327 PMCID: PMC4831886; Meyer B et al. Stem Cell Reports. 7(6)1013-22 (2016). PMID: 27974220 PMCID: PMC5161741). In collaboration with the molecular modeling and medicinal chemistry experts, Dr. Sharma is developing drugs to specifically inhibit key molecular regulators for radioprotection of normal stem cells. These stem cell specific radioprotectors would increase the efficacy of radiotherapy by minimizing normal stem cell dropout without protecting cancer and will directly help improving the quality of life of cancer survivors.

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For more information about research opportunities in this laboratory, please contact Dr. Girdhar Sharma (sharma@wustl.edu).

Xiaowei Wang, PhD

Xiaowei Wang, PhD studies prognostic biomarkers to stratify patients based on the risk of failure to standard therapies.  The lab has performed gene expression profiling studies and established multiple microRNA-based prognostic models for robust prediction of a variety of human cancers.  In particular, they have focused on cervical and oropharyngeal cancers, both of which are closely associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.  Besides microRNA biomarkers,  they have also characterized the interactions between microRNA and HPV during the development of HPV-induced cancers.  The Wang Lab is currently collaborating with Radiation Oncologists to validate the clinical utility of the identified prognostic biomarkers to guide treatment decisions.  They have developed multiple bioinformatics tools and experimental methods to facilitate microRNA studies.  For example, they have developed an online database, miRDB for microRNA target prediction and functional analysis. miRDB has quickly become a widely-used bioinformatics tool for microRNA research.

Besides tools related to microRNA, Dr. Wang’s lab has also developed other popular bioinformatics tools for gene expression studies.  Several prominent examples are: 1) PrimerBank database for real-time PCR studies, which has been referenced by thousands of publications; 2) siOligo program for siRNA design. siOligo is currently used by Life Technologies to design their siRNA products, which have been distributed to hundreds of labs throughout the world; 3) WU-CRISPR, a recently developed tool for the design of CRISPR/Cas9 assays.

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Qin Yang, MD, PhD

Qin Yang, MD, PhD  research interests include somatic and cancer cell reprogramming, telomere recombination in tumorigenesis and the BRCA1-AKT pathway in breast cancer.

  • Somatic and cancer cell reprogramming:  The research projects are to understand mechanisms of somatic and cancer cell reprogramming, and to develop transgene-free reprogramming technology to efficiently generate “safe” cells for the reprogramming-based therapy.  His previous results showed that the p53 and cellular senescence are a crucial step for somatic cell reprogramming (Nature Communications, 2014; Cell Reports, 2014).  Genetic manipulations of the cellular senescence pathways efficiently induced somatic cell reprogramming. p53 mutations are involved in this reprogramming process. Furthermore, his lab screened a kinase inhibitor library and found that the kinase inhibitors contribute to cellular reprogramming, including somatic normal cell and cancer cell reprogramming.  Based on these results, he is developing two research directions: Reprogramming breast/brain cancers into normal cells and rescue of brain injury through neural cell regeneration.Telomere recombination in tumorigenesis: A substantial number of tumors (telomerase negative tumors) utilize the telomere recombination pathway to maintain their indefinite proliferation.  However, details of the molecular mechanism of this pathway are largely unknown.  He found new mechanisms of telomerase and telomere recombination in tumorigenesis (Cancer Res., 2007; Nature Cell Biology, 2009; Cell Cycle, 2009; Cell Cyle, 2014).  Currently, his lab is investigating how telomerase negative tumors are developed and the role of telomere associated proteins in this process.
  • The BRCA1-AKT pathway in breast cancer: BRCA1 is a key factor for development of breast cancers.  However, the reasons why BRCA1-deficiency leads to the development of cancer are not clearly understood.  He has proposed a new idea concerning that the oncogenic AKT pathway may be responsible for development of BRCA1-deficient cancers (Cancer Res. 2008; Oncogene. 2011; Oncogene, 2013, Oncotarget, 2014).  The goal of this project is to understand the mechanism of mTOR-FOXO3 conferring PARP inhibition resistance in BRCA1-deficient cancers, and to develop novel therapeutic strategies for BRCA1-deficient triple-negative breast cancer through targeting the mTOR-FOXO3 pathways together with or without PARP inhibition.

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For more information about research opportunities in this laboratory, please contact Dr. Qin Yang (qyang@wustl.edu).

Jin Zhang, PhD

Jin Zhang, PhD, focuses on creating and integrating advanced computational approaches using high-throughput sequencing data and imaging data into the development of novel diagnostic, prognostic, and therapeutic strategies in cancer. The lab has developed a series of gene fusion discovery and gene fusion function predicting tools, and discovered novel gene fusion biomarkers in endocrine therapy resistant breast carcinoma, mixed fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, and relapsed adult B lymphoblastic leukemia. Besides gene fusions, they have also characterized the landscape of small RNAs (17-200nt) and long non-coding RNAs (>200nt) using novel deep sequencing technologies in acute myeloid leukemia and prostate adenocarcinoma. The Zhang Lab is currently collaborating with Radiation Oncologists, Physicists, and Molecular Biologists to elucidate the cancer biology and discover novel biomarkers of cervical squamous cell carcinoma and endocervical adenocarcinoma, through studying the interaction of human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer gene expression, the alteration of small RNA expression in cervical cancer, and the alterations of pathways that influence cervical cancer glucose metabolism and the response to radiation and chemotherapy.

Dr. Zhang’s lab has also been developing novel informatics approaches to address the critical need for analyzing the rapidly expanding quantities of biological and medical data to impact patient care, including advanced algorithms in split read alignment, pan-cancer analysis using cloud computing, and machine learning techniques. His article of the state-of-the-art gene fusion discovery tool (INTEGRATE) he developed was featured in the 2017 International Medical Informatics Association Yearbook, as one of the four best articles in the ‘Bioinformatics and Translational Informatics’ subfield of medical informatics literature published in the year 2016.

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For more information about research opportunities in this laboratory, please contact Dr. Jin Zhang (jin.zhang@wustl.edu).