2021 News

The annual Precision Medicine Pilot Grants have been awarded to five teams of  researchers conducting innovative basic science, translational, and clinical research across multiple diseases. 

Jointly awarded by the Columbia Precision Medicine Initiative (CPMI), the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC), and the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (Irving Institute), the Precision Medicine Pilot Grants underscore Columbia’s commitment to supporting diverse, cross-disciplinary research targeting the promise of precision medicine.

The five winning teams are being led by faculty at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons (VP&S), including: Srilaxmi Bearelly, MD, associate  professor of ophthalmology; Brian Henick, MD, assistant professor of medicine; Chi-Min Ho, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology; Yufeng Shen, PhD, associate professor of systems biology and of biomedical informatics; and Xuebing Wu, PhD, assistant professor of systems biology and of medicine. The projects being funded are focusing on a range of research, from novel cancer therapeutics to health disparities research. 

The Vagelos Precision Medicine Pilot Grant program is made possible by a generous donation from Roy and Diana Vagelos and is intended to support groundbreaking basic research in the field of precision medicine. Each research team receives $100,000 in funding for one year. The researchers will present their projects at an annual symposium for the precision medicine awards in fall 2022.

Read full article in the HICCC Newsroom

Systems Biology will receive $3,829,859 over five years from the National Institute of Mental Health for “Discovery and Analysis of Brain Circuits and Cell Types Affected in Autism and Schizophrenia.” The project will be led by Dennis Vitkup, PhD, and Joseph Gogos, MD, PhD.

Read full article in CUIMC Newsroom.

Melissa McKenzie, PhD

Melissa McKenzie, PhD, a second-year postdoctoral research scientist in the lab of Chaolin Zhang , PhD, has been awarded a K99/R00 “Pathway to Independence” award. This honor supports her goal to identify how alternative RNA splicing networks influence cortical interneuron specification.

Dr. McKenzie graduated summa cum laude from Cornell University where she was an Irving Tanner Dean’s scholar double majoring in biological sciences and philosophy. She joined the Zhang lab with a growing interest in leveraging emerging sequencing and other genomics technologies to investigate the role of RNA transcripts in the developing brain. 

This award program is designed to facilitate a timely transition of outstanding postdoctoral researchers or clinician-scientists from mentored research positions to independent, tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions, and to provide independent NIH research support during the transition that will help these individuals launch competitive, independent research careers.

Read more about Dr. McKenzie and research by the Zhang lab

The 2021 Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research has been awarded to Xuebing Wu, PhD, for his innovative approaches to cancer research. The Pershing Square Sohn Prize is an annual award that provides early career scientists the freedom to take risks and pursue bold research at a stage when traditional funding is lacking. At Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Dr. Wu shares the designation with Christine Iok In Chio, PhD, whose work focuses on the biological mechanisms that drive pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma.

With the support from the Pershing Foundation, Dr. Wu and his lab aim to develop a technology for mutation-specific elimination of tumor cells, by integrating a highly programmable CRISPR “gene-editing” system with advanced machine learning algorithms. 

Read the full article in the HICCC Newsroom. 

Tal Korem, PhD, Systems Biology and Obstetrics & Gynecology, will receive $307,136 over five years from the National Institute of Nursing Research for a subaward of “The Role of Host-Microbial Interactions in Altering Preterm Birth Risk Among Black Women.”

Read the full article in the CUIMC Newsroom.

One of the most recognizable characteristics of autism is an amazing diversity of associated behavioral symptoms. Clinicians view autism as a broad spectrum of related disorders, and the origin of the disease's heterogeneity has puzzled scientists, doctors, and affected families for decades.

In a recent study, led by Dennis Vitkup, PhD, associate professor of systems biology, researchers have made an important step towards understanding the biological mechanisms underlying the cognitive and behavioral diversity of autism cases triggered by de novo truncating mutations. These mutations occur in parents’ germline cells and usually strongly disrupt the functions of target genes. De novo truncating mutations are responsible for close to 5% of autism cases and up to 20% of cases seen clinically.

Read the full article in the CUIMC Newsroom.

Two Systems Biology GRAs Receive Awards

Tomasz Blazejewski has received the 2021 Dean's Award for Excellence in Research. His PhD research centered on generative models for biological sequences, a relatively new area at the interface of machine learning and biology. “I'm deeply appreciative to my advisor, Harris Wang,” says Blazejewski, “for giving me the freedom to investigate this relatively uncharted area, and to my thesis committee for its guidance as I tried to figure out the best approaches to the problem.”

Hanna Mendes Levitin has received the Titus M Coan Award for Excellence in Research. Her PhD research focused on extracting biological signals from-high dimensional data, specifically in the context of high-grade glioma, and on human tissue T cell activation. “I was surprised to receive the award,” says Levitin, “and believe it speaks to the excellence of my collaborators and mentors—especially my advisor, Dr. Peter Sims, and the entire Sims lab, as well as our collaborators, Dr. Donna Farber, Dr. Peter Canoll, and Dr. David Blei, and their respective labs.