Ziskin Prize Winners Will Collaborate to Further Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors for Treating Breast Cancer

Ziskin Prize Winners Will Collaborate to Further Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors for Treating Breast Cancer

Two prominent breast cancer scientists will use their shared $250,000 Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) grant to collaborate on the development of new therapies for treating breast cancer — and hopefully reducing mortality rates.

SU2C’s 2020 Laura Ziskin Prize in Translational Research was awarded to Leisha A. Emens, MD, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Hillman Cancer Center, and Xiang Zhang, PhD, of Baylor College of Medicine.

The award for the new, year-long research project, which will combine the doctors’ expertise in both breast cancer immuno-oncology and tumor immunology, was presented at this year’s SU2C Scientific Summit, held in January in Santa Monica, Calif. Specifically, the researchers will seek to further the availability of immune checkpoint inhibitors — a class of treatment that blocks proteins called checkpoints that are used by cancer cells to evade immune surveillance.

“With their diverse backgrounds and complementary expertise, we’re confident that these two investigators will make great contributions to further develop therapies that could provide improved outcomes for breast cancer patients — and potentially reduce mortality rates,” John Glaspy, MD, selection committee co-chair, said in a press release.

A professor of medicine in hematology and oncology at UPMC, Emens is co-leader of the Hillman Cancer immunology and immunotherapy program. She’s also director of translational immunotherapy for the UPMC Women’s Cancer Research Center, and has received global recognition for breast cancer immunotherapy research.

Emens has a breast cancer vaccine to her credit. She shepherded Roche’s Tecentriq (atezolizumab) from preclinical assessment in human breast tumors ultimately to Phase 3 clinical trials, leading to federal approval of the therapy in advanced triple negative breast cancer.

For his part, Zhang, a professor at Baylor’s Breast Center, has focused his research on metastatic breast cancer, a condition in which the disease has spread to other parts of the body. He discovered a region in bones that promotes survival and growth of breast cancer cells, leading to bone metastasis. He also invented a host of preclinical models and technologies aimed at advancing anti-metastasis drug discovery.

Zhang also has made important discoveries about tumor microenvironment and its reaction to checkpoint blockade treatments. Such discoveries have helped scientists better understand the affect of these interactions on therapies.

The duo was chosen for the award following a rigorous competitive review process that sought to identify the best research proposal for funding,

The Ziskin Prize is named for Hollywood producer and SU2C co-founder Laura Ziskin, who lived with breast cancer for seven years before her 2011 death. As was her wish, $1.1 million in award funding comes from her estate.

Stand Up To Cancer raises funds to speed research for new treatments. As of last December, some 1,600 investigators representing roughly 180 institutions were involved in SU2C-funded research.