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Medals All Around

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Johns Hopkins University is trying to get young researchers early in their careers — students, doctoral candidates, and oncology fellows and residents — to come up with inventive new ways to beat metastatic cancer, reports Vanessa Wasta in The JHU Gazette. Last week, five finalists for the John G. Rangos Medal of Honor in Creative Thinking — chosen from 44 entrants — presented their ideas in front of an audience and a panel of faculty judges, which chose the top three winners.

Fifth-place winner Kevin Cheung proposed reprogramming cancer cells into germ cells, using techniques similar to those used to create immature pluripotent stem cells from adult cells, Wasta says. In fourth place, oncology fellow Brian Ladle posited that cancers that are more uniform are easier to cure, and suggested targeting uniform populations of cells within heterogeneous tumors. In third place, and winner of a $1,000 prize, Diane Heiser said that researchers need to understand how metastatic cancer cells repair their own DNA, Wasta reports, and suggested that the reason metastatic cancer cells are able to withstand chemotherapy is because they can repair themselves after treatment.

Cheng Ra Huang, winner of the second place prize of $5,000, presented her ideas on the fight between cancer and transposons. "She notes that nearly half of the human genome is made up of 'jumping DNA,' short sequences of DNA that get inserted into the genome at various points; too many transposons can lead to genomic instability and kill the cell," Wasta says. "Huang says that germ cell tumors have the highest level of transposon activity, making them more prone to cell death and, thus, more easily killed by chemotherapy drugs." In this case, Huang added, there may be a role for drugs that suppress transposon activity in the treatment of cancer.

First-place winner Andrew Sharabi received a $20,000 prize, Wasta says. Sharabi suggested that researchers study testicular cancer as a model of how to induce the immune system to attack cancer cells. "He proposes further investigations of how the immune system responds to testicular cancer cells to identify specific immune system targets common to testicular cancer as well as other types of cancer," Wasta says. "The research could lead to the development of vaccines that prime the body to defend against and fight cancers."

Johns Hopkins plans to continue holding the competition each year, Wasta adds, and is considering opening it up to students from other schools, as well.

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