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NIH New Innovator Award Given to Wistar Researcher to Unravel the Metabolic Link Between Diet, Alcohol Consumption and Cancer 

PHILADELPHIA — (October 1, 2019) — The National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced that Zachary T. Schug, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Molecular & Cellular Oncogenesis Program at The Wistar Institute, was awarded the prestigious NIH Director’s New Innovator Award in support of his research on the link between a high sugar/fat diet, alcohol use and cancer.

Obesity and heavy drinking are on the rise in the U.S. and represent two of the most significant risk factors for cancer. This grant, totaling $2,679,000 given over five years, will advance Schug’s research on the molecular mechanisms underlying this connection.

NIH Director’s Awards for High-Risk, High-Reward Research are given to exceptionally creative scientists and were launched to support innovative approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research that call for high-risk, high-impact proposals.

“Each year, I look forward to seeing the creative approaches these researchers take to solve tough problems in biomedical and behavioral research,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “I am confident the 2019 cohort of awardees has the potential to advance our mission of enhancing health through their groundbreaking studies.”

The New Innovator Award is focused on funding dynamic and talented early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree.

“Zachary’s research has the ambitious goal of unraveling the diet-induced metabolic and epigenetic changes that underlie tumor growth and progression, and may have important clinical implications,” said Dario C. Altieri, M.D., Wistar’s president and CEO, director of the Wistar Cancer Center and the Robert and Penny Fox Distinguished Professor. “Because of its high impact, this work embodies the type of research the NIH plans to support with this award.”

Both alcohol and high-fructose-containing foods cause production of high amounts of a chemical called acetate, which is used by cancer cells to fuel growth and progression. Acetate is critical for numerous metabolic functions including energy production and lipid synthesis and represents a key intracellular signaling molecule used for modification of protein function and modulation of gene expression.

Schug seeks to elucidate how diet and alcohol consumption influence acetate metabolism and, as a consequence, how they impact gene expression in cancer. He will additionally study the contributing role played by the bacteria that reside in the gut, also known as the microbiota, which are the major producers of acetate in the body. The information gained through this study may provide the basis for novel therapies and will deepen our understanding of the links between alcohol use, obesity and cancer.

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program is part of the NIH Common Fund that supports high-risk, unconventional endeavors with the potential for extraordinary impact on high-priority emerging scientific questions. In 2019, NIH Director’s Awards provided approximately $263 million to be given over five years.

Grant information: Director’s New Innovator Award 1DP2CA249950-01, The multifaceted role of acetate in cancer.


The Wistar Institute is an international leader in biomedical research with special cancer, immunology, infectious disease 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.

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