Fox Chase Researcher Receives 2020 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

PHILADELPHIA (October 7, 2020)—Joan Font-Burgada, PhD, assistant professor in the Cancer Biology Research Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center, has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award from the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program.

NIH Director’s Awards are prestigious awards that are given to exceptionally creative scientists proposing unconventional approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. The New Innovator Award specifically supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators.

“Innovation is inherent in the kind of science that Fox Chase has long nurtured—work that has led to important discoveries in how we understand and treat cancer. Dr. Font-Burgada’s work honors this legacy by pursuing novel approaches to addressing metastatic disease, something that holds great potential for many patients with various types of cancer,” said Richard I. Fisher, MD, president and CEO of Fox Chase.

“The breadth of innovative science put forth by the 2020 cohort of early career and seasoned investigators is impressive and inspiring,” said NIH director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD. “I am confident that their work will propel biomedical and behavioral research and lead to improvements in human health.”

Font-Burgada’s research focuses on cancer metastasis, which is the direct cause of over 90% of cancer deaths. Historically, research has focused on determining specific properties of the metastatic cells that could be used to develop therapies. This approach has become unattainable because of the high genetic diversity of metastatic cells, resulting in multiple “unique” tumors in a single patient.

Font-Burgada proposes switching the spotlight from metastatic cells to the so-called metastasis-interacting resident cells (MiRCs). The underlying hypothesis is that resident cells in the invaded organs that directly interact with metastatic cells will undergo specific molecular changes. These changes could be a new set of molecular commonalities across metastatic tumors that could be the target for therapy development.

If successful, this approach could result in effective treatments for many patients regardless of cancer type, with the additional benefit of reduced resistance, since the cells being targeted are not cancer cells and therefore devoid of escape strategies. Font-Burgada defines this as an extensive medicine approach as opposed to mainstream precision medicine.

“I am really grateful to the NIH for promoting the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program and supporting early stage investigators like myself. This initiative encourages us to be imaginative and bold in tackling unsolved biomedical issues. It is truly an honor to receive this award and join the ranks of such an exceptional list of past awardees,” said Font-Burgada.

In addition to the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, grant number DP2 CA258224-01, Font-Burgada was also a recipient of a 2012 California Institute for Regenerative Medicine Postdoctoral Training Grant, as well as a 2015 K99/R00 NIH Pathway to Independence Award, the 2015 Hertzberg-Schechter Prize for Stem Cell Research, and the 2018 Alumni of Excellence Award from the Institute for Biomedical Research of Barcelona.

Fox Chase Cancer Center (Fox Chase), which includes the Institute for Cancer Research and the American Oncologic Hospital and is a part of Temple Health, is one of the leading comprehensive cancer centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase is also one of just 10 members of the Alliance of Dedicated Cancer Centers. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence six consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach. It is the policy of Fox Chase Cancer Center that there shall be no exclusion from, or participation in, and no one denied the benefits of, the delivery of quality medical care on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, disability, age, ancestry, color, national origin, physical ability, level of education, or source of payment.

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