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A New Principal Investigator Award Supports First Project

November 29, 2022

Advancing High-Risk / High Reward Science

In 2016, The Wistar Institute established the Wistar Science Accelerator Awards through the generosity of the Tobin-Kestenbaum Family, the Schaeffer Family, and the Philadelphia Health Care Trust. Ever since then, the awards have been providing internal seed funding of up to $125,000 a year to principal investigators (PIs), postdoctoral fellows, and industry partners that support innovative, investigator-initiated research, and have the potential to support the development of preliminary observations into robust intellectual property positions.

The Wistar Science Accelerator Awards welcome proposals from Wistar postdoctoral fellows, PIs, and partners with early-stage research in a range of life science areas, including therapeutics, diagnostics, drug delivery technologies, and enabling technologies for drug discovery. Each project is evaluated by a scientific advisory committee on its overall potential for impact, including its scientific and technical merit, its development needs, and the commercial prospects of the technology.

A New Principal Investigator Award Supports First Project

A goal of the Bold Science//Global Impact strategic plan and ensuing capital campaign is to expand the Institute’s translational ecosystem by increasing the number of Wistar Science Accelerator Awards that we can provide to our faculty. Joe Goldblum, a member of Wistar’s Board of Trustees and a dedicated Wistar philanthropist, was early to step up and commit to fund an additional investigator award — The Goldblum Family Healthcare Fund Principal Investigator Award.

Following the careful scientific review of the submitted applications by the science advisory committee, Joe, with input from Wistar leadership, selected to fund a project from Dr. Jessie Villanueva’s lab that focuses on finding therapies for drug-resistant melanoma. This project had personal significance for Joe as he lost his grandfather to melanoma and had been a member of Wistar’s Melanoma Research Center Advisory Board since he joined Wistar’s Board of Trustees. For Joe and his family, it was also important to invest philanthropically in high-risk, high-reward projects that enhance inclusion in STEM professions. Dr. Villanueva grew up in Peru and is leading Wistar’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs.

The Project

The project Dr. Villanueva is working on focuses on finding new therapeutics for drug resistant melanoma. Despite significant progress and improved treatments, about 70% of melanoma patients do not obtain sustained benefit from FDA-approved therapies and experience disease progression. Melanomas that are resistant to MAPK inhibitors (MAPKi-R), including those that harbor mutations in the NRAS gene (NRASmut), have exceptionally poor prognosis and no efficacious second line therapies. Thus, developing rational approaches to combat MAPKi-R tumors, especially those driven by oncogenic NRAS, is urgently needed. Dr. Villanueva’s team has identified S6 kinase 2 (S6K2) as a critical therapeutic vulnerability in NRASmut MAPKi-R melanoma. Moreover, they have identified a unique approach and developed novel S6K2 inhibitors to target this class of tumors. Her long-term research goal, which the Goldblum Family Healthcare Fund will advance, is to develop novel therapeutic strategies to give patients with drug resistant melanoma effective treatment options.