October 22, 2009

Salk scientist receives The Sontag Foundation's Distinguished Scientist Award

Salk News

Salk scientist receives The Sontag Foundation’s Distinguished Scientist Award

LA JOLLA, CA—Dr. Clodagh O’Shea, an assistant professor in the Molecular Cell and Biology Laboratory, has been selected by The Sontag Foundation to receive the 2009 Distinguished Scientist Award. She will receive $600,000 over a four-year period to develop new viral therapies to treat invariably fatal glioblastomas and other brain tumors.

Through the prestigious Distinguished Scientist Awards, The Sontag Foundation recognizes and supports the work of outstanding early career scientists whose research has the potential to generate new knowledge relating to causes, cures or treatment of brain tumors.

“The Sontag Foundation wants to get people with fresh ideas to think about brain cancer in novel ways,” says O’Shea. “I have not focused on brain cancer until I came to the Salk and breaking into the field would have been very difficult without their support. I am extremely excited to be able to translate the genetic understanding of brain cancer into transformative treatments for patients suffering from this terrible disease. To achieve this we will combine new viral vectors, tools and mouse models in a way that’s never been done before. It’s high risk but it really could change things.”

O’Shea is an expert on so-called oncolytic viruses that act as tumor-mutation guided missiles, which target tumor cells for their own purposes. When infected cells burst open to release thousands of viral progeny, the next generation of viruses can seek out remaining tumor cells and distant micro-metastases.

In virtually all glioblastomas the tumor suppressors Rb and p53 are inactivated, allowing her to engineer viruses that home in on brain tumor cells carrying Rb or p53-mutations. Initially, she will create mouse doppelgangers of the human therapeutic viruses to test their tumor selectivity and potency in a new mouse model of glioblastoma, developed in Inder Verma’s lab at the Salk, that faithfully replicates the human disease. If these viruses prove their mettle against mouse tumors, she will then apply the knowledge from these pre-clinical studies to develop new therapies for human brain cancers and other tumors.

“We have cured cancer in mice many times over,” says O’Shea. “It’s really important not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: to find effective treatments for human patients.”

Many patients’ brain tumors are inoperable and it is difficult to deliver drugs across the torturous brain tumor blood vessels, which proliferate abnormally to feed the tumor and distant metastases. Therefore, O’Shea will also exploit viruses that naturally infect blood vessels in the brain to identify and develop new therapeutic agents that specifically destroy the tumor blood vessels, starving the tumor to death.

About Clodagh O’Shea:

Born and raised in Cork, Ireland, O’Shea earned her bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry and Microbiology from the University College Cork, and her doctorate in Immunology from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF)/Imperial College London, England. After completing a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of California in San Francisco, she was recruited to the Salk Institute in La Jolla in 2007.

About the Sontag Foundation:

The Sontag Foundation, headquartered in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, is a private foundation which funds medical research in the fields of brain cancer and rheumatoid arthritis on a national level and also awards grants to fund programs meeting various social and educational needs of individuals living in Northeast Florida. Since 2003, The Sontag Foundation has awarded over $12.8 million for brain cancer research. For additional information, go to www.sontagfoundation.org.

About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is one of the world’s preeminent basic research institutions, where internationally renowned faculty probe fundamental life science questions in a unique, collaborative, and creative environment. Focused both on discovery and on mentoring future generations of researchers, Salk scientists make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, aging, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders by studying neuroscience, genetics, cell and plant biology, and related disciplines.

Faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel Prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1960 by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, M.D., the Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark.

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