News in Brief

VP&S faculty members Sonia Yris Angell, MD, Wendy Chung, MD, PhD, and Kam W. Leong, PhD, were elected to the National Academy of Medicine in October 2020. Members are elected by their peers in recognition of outstanding achievement, and election is one of the highest honors bestowed in the field of medicine. Dr. Angell, assistant clinical professor of medicine, was selected for her leadership in the nation’s first municipal regulation to ban transfat, launching national coalitions to reduce sodium and sugar in our food supply, working globally to improve control of hypertension, and global leadership in modeling environmental change to sustainably reduce risk and save lives. She previously served as deputy commissioner of the New York City health department. Dr. Chung, the Kennedy Family Professor of Pediatrics (in Medicine) and leader of the Precision Medicine Resource in the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, was selected for identifying the genetic basis for over 45 monogenic conditions (two of which bear her name) across a wide range of diseases and leading the pivotal study of newborn screening for spinal muscular atrophy. Dr. Chung was the original plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that overturned the ability to patent genes. She has 20 years of experience in human genetic research of monogenic and complex traits. Dr. Leong is the Samuel Y. Sheng Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science and a faculty member in the VP&S Department of Systems Biology. He was selected for his innovative developments in multifunctional nanoscale technologies for delivering drugs, antigens, proteins, siRNA, and DNA to cells. Dr. Leong’s lab focuses on the design of therapeutic biomaterials for gene editing, drug and gene delivery, and regenerative medicine, including the development of nanocarriers that can deliver gene-editing elements to the liver for metabolic disorders.

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Angela Christiano, PhD, Molly Przeworski, PhD, and Lorraine S. Symington, PhD, were elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Dr. Przeworski also was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which recognizes excellence of scientists, artists, scholars, and leaders in the public, non-profit, and private sectors. Dr. Christiano’s research focuses on determining the genetic and immunologic mechanisms underlying alopecia areata, an autoimmune form of hair loss. Her laboratory’s research has identified potential therapeutic targets for this disorder, including JAK inhibitors that are now in widespread clinical development by several large pharmaceutical companies and will likely represent the first class of FDA-approved drugs for alopecia areata. Dr. Przeworski’s work aims to understand how natural selection has shaped patterns of genetic variation and to identify the causes and consequences of variation in recombination and mutation rates in humans and other organisms. Her research has contributed to a better understanding of how natural selection operates in humans and in other species. It has revealed recombination rates to be highly variable among individuals. Dr. Symington studies how the cell repairs harmful DNA damage. Defects in the repair mechanism have been associated with increased mutagenesis and cancer. Drugs that increase DNA damage, or disable other repair mechanisms, are effective in the treatment of cancers with homologous recombination deficiencies. Her long-term goal, by studying budding yeast as a model system, is to identify genes that control homologous recombination in people.

The Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center has been competitively renewed as a designated Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute. Originally funded in 1972, the HICCC gained comprehensive status in 1979. The most recent renewal marks more than 40 years since the HICCC has maintained its status as a comprehensive cancer center. After a thorough evaluation of every facet of HICCC’s operations, the NCI awarded the HICCC with the Comprehensive Cancer Center designation, the highest ranking given. The redesignation comes with a five-year support grant of $26.5 million—an increase of nearly 40% in funding over the previous support grant. HICCC scientists are among the world’s most prolific and innovative, helping boost Columbia to the top position among health care institutions in a recent Nature Index annual ranking. Last year alone, HICCC received over $19 million in multi-investigator research grants, more than doubling the number of collaborative team science projects since 2014. The HICCC saw a 132% increase in NCI funding since 2014 to $25.7 million, with $92 million in cancer funding overall. Over the past five years, researchers at HICCC have made new discoveries in cancer immunotherapy, expanded the use of systems biology and genomics to identify personalized cancer treatments, and introduced mathematical and engineering approaches to the study of cancer. HICCC physicians delivered more than 120,000 cancer treatments last year, up from 90,000 in 2014. The number of patients enrolled in clinical trials at the center has increased over the past five years by nearly 40%, with underrepresented minorities accounting for nearly 50% of all study participants.

Dawn Hershman, MD, professor of medicine at VP&S and professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, has received a prestigious American Cancer Society Professorship in recognition of her advances in breast cancer research and health outcomes. The professorship, a lifelong designation, honors physician-scientists and clinicians for seminal contributions to cancer.

A longtime goal of Columbia and other suicide researchers—a national suicide hotline number—will be realized in July 2022. The Federal Communications Commission voted to create a single, shorter, easier to remember number—988—to access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s network of crisis services. When Madelyn Gould, PhD, the Irving Philips Professor of Epidemiology (in Psychiatry), first started evaluating suicide hotlines in 2001, the services were not held in high regard by the mental health community, but the work by Dr. Gould and others firmly established the importance of suicide crisis hotlines in the nation’s efforts to prevent suicide. Until 988 is available, Americans can continue to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK. Approximately 170 crisis centers are part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the national network of crisis hotlines. The 988 number should make crisis services more accessible to people who are in need, says Dr. Gould. “When people are overwhelmed and in crisis, their cognitive ability is overwhelmed; a shorter number should make it easier to recall.”