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USU Genetics Researchers Receive National Award for Cancer Genome Work

Photos of two men in suits Uniformed Services University faculty Dr. Hai Hu (left) and Dr. Matthew Wilkerson (right) were among the members of The Cancer Genome Atlas team who received awards from the AACR for their work sequencing the cancer genome. (Courtesy photo)

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Two USU scientists have been lauded by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) for their efforts to create a detailed catalog of genomic change associated with specific types of cancer and pan-cancer studies.

Dr. Matthew Wilkerson, the Data Science Core director of USU’s Center for Precision Medicine in Military Medical Education and Research, research associate professor of Anatomy, Physiology and Genetics, and a USU contract employee of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine (HJF), was among the only 129 selected from approximately 1,000 members of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) team honored with the AACR’s Team Science Award during the association’s virtual annual meeting, June 22-24.  The award recognizes an outstanding interdisciplinary team of researchers for their innovative and meritorious science that has advanced or may advance fundamental knowledge of cancer, or a team that has applied existing knowledge to advancing the detection, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment of cancer.

“I am honored to be selected as a recipient of the 2020 Team Science Award from the American Association for Cancer Research for my efforts in The Cancer Genome Atlas,” Wilkerson said. “As part of the TCGA, I was co-chair for the pheochromocytoma study and performed computational genomics analysis for a variety of other tumor types.  Our teamwork resulted in world-class discoveries into the molecular basis of cancer.  In particular, my genome data analysis methods identified new subtypes of cancer based on molecular profiles – thus characterizing new molecular pathology and paving the way for more precise tumor diagnosis.  Our results are very exciting to me because they are clinically-relevant and lead to future patient benefit.”

In addition to Wilkerson, Dr. Hai Hu, a research associate professor in USU’s Department of Surgery, council member for the John P. Murtha Cancer Center and chief scientific officer for the Chan Soon-Chiong Institute of Molecular Medicine at Windber in Windber, Pennsylvania, was also among the award recipients.

“I am honored to be recognized as one of the selected awardees from TCGA for the AACR 2020 Team Science Award. We became part of the TCGA first as a tissue source site for the breast cancer study, for which the Clinical Breast Care Project (CBCP) contributed 10% of the samples exclaimed of the highest quality,” said Hu. “At the same time, we participated in data analysis and emerged as the leader for TCGA clinical data analysis, publishing important papers in top journals and ultimately developed the TCGA Clinical Data Resource published in Cell. For these studies, Mr. Jianfang Liu, our Senior Statistical Analyst, shouldered most of the data analysis responsibilities, working intelligently and diligently to derive outstanding statistical results. In this whole course, Dr. Craig D. Shriver, CBCP principal investigator and MCCRP director, played a pivotal leadership role in making the organizational decision to join TCGA, giving me full freedom and unwavering support which enabled us to unveil the values of the TCGA clinical data.”

The Cancer Genome Atlas Project began in 2006 as a joint effort between the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute. Researchers with diverse backgrounds from a number of institutions throughout the nation were brought together to create the cancer genomic catalog. Since then, TCGA has expanded its research to improve the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of numerous cancers. The TCGA founders and selected current project team members were recognized for their extensive collaborations and ongoing efforts to generate one of the largest-ever sets of tumor characterization data.

Since its inception, TCGA has resulted in the molecular characterization of more than 20,000 primary cancer and matched normal samples spanning 33 cancer types. The data generated by TCGA have highlighted changes that possess the ability to drive cancer initiation and progression and transform our understanding of cancer.

In addition to these groundbreaking discoveries, TCGA has revolutionized cancer genomics research by establishing new standards and procedures for managing interdisciplinary teams of biological scientists, clinicians, computational scientists, and pathologists. TCGA has also been influential in developing and implementing universal policies that have made genomic data broadly available for public access.

The initiative faced a number of challenges early on due to the scale of the project, but the founders were determined to make a significant difference in cancer research to benefit cancer patients.

“There was a tremendous amount of work across multiple disciplines to fully sequence cancer genomes, and the significance of discoveries to come out of TCGA cannot be overstated,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, one of TCGA’s founders. “TCGA continues to be one of the most important tools in the fight against cancer.”

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