August 1, 2003

Massion receives Runyon award for lung cancer research

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Dr. Pierre P. Massion, who was awarded the The Damon Runyon Research Foundation/Lilly Clinical Investigator Award, will spend the next five years researching the early detection of lung cancer and identifying those who are at risk. By Dana Johnson

Massion receives Runyon award for lung cancer research

For the second straight year, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has awarded its major clinical investigator award to a Vanderbilt physician-scientist.

The Damon Runyon Research Foundation/Lilly Clinical Investigator Award will provide $200,000 annually for five years to support the work of Dr. Pierre P. Massion to search for specific markers in the blood and in the airways that would detect lung cancer early and identify those at risk for developing the disease.

“Certainly, the first strategy in the management of lung cancer should be to convince people to never smoke and if they do smoke, to quit,” said Massion, assistant professor of Medicine. “But people who quit smoking remain at risk. As the Baby Boomers get older, it is predicted that the people diagnosed with lung cancer in the future will be mostly ex-smokers. Yet, we have no good screening strategy for these people.”

Massion, an investigator in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in lung cancer, is working to identify molecular markers – specific patterns of protein expression – in lung tissue, sputum or blood that would be a red flag for the presence or risk of lung cancer.

“Such a marker does not exist as of yet, but different groups including ours have identified candidates,” Massion said. “In particular, specific biochemical changes to DNA called methylation and changes to the number of chromosomes hold promise.”

Scientists also hope to discover markers that would signal the very earliest changes in cells that, if left unchecked, would lead to lung cancer. That information would then help select patients for “chemoprevention” or other interventions. “We believe there is a big window of opportunity to intervene between exposure and the development of cancer.”

“We are delighted that Dr. Massion will receive the Damon Runyon Award this year,” said Dr. Eric G. Neilson, Morgan Professor and Chair of Medicine. “We are most fortunate to have the depth of talent on our faculty to compete for such a prestigious award.  This is a very exciting time for lung cancer research here at Vanderbilt.”

Massion gave credit for the successful award application to his mentor, Dr. David P. Carbone, Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and director of the SPORE in lung cancer.

Dr. William M. Grady, assistant professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology, was awarded a Runyon/Lilly Clinical Investigator Award last year to support similar work to develop DNA-based screening tools for colorectal cancer. Grady is an investigator in the VICC’s SPORE in gastrointestinal cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer among both men and women in the United States, with nearly 172,000 cases and more than 157,000 deaths this year. Colorectal cancer is the most common cancer among both men and women; it will be diagnosed in about 147,500 Americans this year and claim more than 56,000 lives.

“The Damon Runyon Foundation/Lilly Clinical Investigator Award provides substantial support for this promising area of research,” said Dr. Hal Moses, director of the VICC and Benjamin F. Byrd Professor of Oncology. “It is rewarding for any investigator’s work to be recognized and supported in this way, but to have two investigators in two years awarded this grant is a tremendous honor indeed.”

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation/Lilly Clinical Investigator Award is designed to “help rescue an endangered species,” the physician willing to devote his or her career to the development and application of new diagnostic, therapeutic and prevention strategies for cancer through clinical and translational research.

“Earmarked for young physicians wishing to commit themselves to substantive and innovative clinical research, the award bridges the gap between the research laboratory and patient care,” according to the foundation’s website. “Though there’s never been a more pressing need or more promising time for clinical cancer research, fewer young physicians enter this area of investigation every year.”

The foundation was created in 1946 by popular radio journalist Walter Winchell after the cancer death of his friend, storywriter and journalist Damon Runyon. Winchell himself died of cancer in 1972.

The foundation supports young investigators working in all areas of cancer research, including all types of tumors as well as areas relevant to multiple cancers, such as tumor metastases. The foundation has invested more than $135 million and supported more than 3,000 scientists. The Clinical Investigator Award was established in 2000 in partnership with Eli Lilly & Company.