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A Moment for Mentors

Heinz-Josef Lenz, M.D., and Jeffrey S. Weber, M.D., Ph.D., associate professors of medicine, each garnered a K24 award, known as a Midcareer Investigator Award in Patient-Oriented Research. The awards point to their commitment to fostering the careers of up-and-coming colleagues and building clinical cancer programs that take research from the lab bench to the patient’s bedside.

“This is a relatively new award-our first full year for the grants was 2000,” says Lester S. Gorelic, a program director at the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

This year, 55 researchers applied from throughout the nation for the NCI’s K24 awards, and 15 of them-or 27 percent-were successful. Although it is not the first time two researchers from the same university and department have won the award, the double award to Lenz and Weber indicate that the NCI saw potential at USC/Norris.

Lenz says the award is valuable because it will free him to work more closely with several young medical oncologists to build momentum in medical oncology research.

His research projects focus on identifying molecular markers that predict tumors’ response to chemotherapy. Lenz worked with Peter Danenberg, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and Kathleen Danenberg, research laboratory specialist at USC/Norris, to pinpoint key molecular markers-for the first time-that can predict chemotherapy’s success in colon cancer patients.

The K24 grant will provide several young researchers the resources of Lenz’s laboratory. One researcher, USC/Norris medical oncologist Agustin Garcia, M.D., has developed a promising clinical trial for patients with ovarian cancer that includes laboratory research to understand why one chemotherapy works in some patients and not in others.

Syma Iqbal, an oncology fellow at USC, and Lenz designed a novel chemotherapy protocol for bile duct cancer that also includes lab research to identify patients who are most likely to benefit from chemotherapy.

Weber is working with three young gynecologic oncologists to pursue a vaccine to help the body fight off human papillomavirus (HPV) and reverse the cellular abnormalities it can cause in the cervix that may lead to cervical cancer. Certain HPV strains are associated with cervical cancer, Weber notes, and cervical cancer remains a leading cause of women’s deaths in Latin America, and is still a major public health issue in Los Angeles County.

Laila Muderspach, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and one of the young investigators in the HPV project, recently published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, along with Weber and colleagues, on the use of an HPV vaccine to treat patients with the precursor to cervical and vulvar cancer.

“Heinz-Josef Lenz and I have worked hard on our programs, and the K24 awards help build prestige for the division,” Weber says, forming a starting point for attracting more investigators and building on the progress of clinical research at USC/Norris.

A Moment for Mentors

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