Doctors win $1.5 million awards for cancer research

Gambhir to study cancer detection while Negrin will focus on marrow transplants

Sanjiv Sam Gambhir

Robert Negrin

Two of the four Doris Duke Distinguished Clinical Scientist Awards are going to Stanford scientists this year.

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation announced Thursday that Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD, and Robert Negrin, MD, were each selected to receive a $1.5 million prize, designated for mid-career physician-scientists whose research shows promise for translating the latest scientific advances into new ways to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure disease. They were chosen from 71 scientists who were nominated for the honor by their respective institutions. The nominees are required to submit research proposals outlining how they would use the funds over a five-to seven-year period.

Gambhir, a professor of radiology, hopes to find a better way to identify cancer cells in the body through molecular imaging.

Gambhir’s project aims to use what he calls “molecular detectives” to seek out and spy on biological processes after they have been injected into a patient. By tracking the special signals that these molecules emit as they spread throughout the body, images are created that help to pinpoint certain diseases. Different types of detectives, or imaging probes, can detect cancer, cardiovascular and neurological diseases.

Detecting cancer requires probes that don’t get confused by non-cancer sites and that can detect cancer cells even when there are very few present, said Gambhir, who is also director of the medical school’s molecular imaging program.

Gambhir plans to use the prize money to evaluate a new class of probes for detecting colorectal cancer, as he hopes that they will be more selective and sensitive than the probe, known as FDG, that is now in use.

If this new probe is effective in identifying colorectal cancer, Gambhir noted, then the chances are good that the probe will work for other types of cancer as well.

Negrin, professor of medicine, is going to study how to increase the beneficial effects of bone marrow transplantation—an effective therapy for a number of cancers—while minimizing the side-effects of immune system overreaction.

Negrin’s approach involves using an enriching method to accumulate large amounts of T regulatory cells from a bone marrow sample. His previous studies have found these T regulatory cells to be effective in countering an overactive immune response to a marrow transplant.

“This is a pretty hot field right now,” explained Negrin, “because it has significant implications, if it works, for treating autoimmune disease and for decreasing rejection following organ transplantation.

“It may bear fruit, but we have to figure it out in clinic first. It’s a long way from animals to humans.”