Alexander Huang, MD, and Andrew Rech, PhD

PHILADELPHIA – Two Penn Medicine scientists have received awards to support cancer immunotherapy research by talented young investigators from the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. Alexander Huang, MD, and Andrew Rech, PhD, both postdoctoral fellows at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, were two of six recipients nationally of the awards.

Huang, a fourth-year clinical fellow in the division of Hematology/Oncology and Institute for Immunology at Penn, has been selected as a Parker Bridge Scholar. He is also a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of E. John Wherry, PhD, co-director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Penn. The Parker Bridge Scholar program provides funding for up to three years and up to $650,000 for researchers moving from a mentored postdoctoral research position to status as an independent academic investigator in a tenure-track faculty position.

Huang was lead author of a paper published in Nature earlier this year whose findings could improve physicians’ ability to determine which patients with metastatic melanoma and perhaps other cancers are not responding to immunotherapies that block the programmed cell death 1 (PD-1) receptor protein. For these patients, this may allow for an opportunity to introduce additional medications to increase the possibility of shrinking the tumors. While therapies that target the PD-1 receptor have shown unparalleled rates of success in patients with various types of cancer, more than half of patients do not see their tumors shrink.

“The Parker Institute has a tremendous amount of collaboration across research institutes, and this program gives me access to cutting-edge technology,” Huang said. “I’m also excited to be part of a training program where I have access to mentors at my institution and at other top institutions across the country as well. All of this will help move my research forward.”

Rech, an MD/PhD student who works in the laboratory of Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, also co-director of the Parker Institute at Penn, has been named a Parker Scholar. The program provides one year of funding, with possible renewal for a second year, for graduate students or researchers entering their first postdoctoral appointment. Rech researches basic and translational tumor immunology, using mouse models of cancer, patient tissue analysis, and computational approaches to improve immune therapy for cancer. In particular, he is interested in which targets on tumor cells are attacked by T-cells in the immune system. This could lead to more effective therapies by understanding how immune responses against tumors happen at the molecular level.

“[The Parker Institute] programs are filling a critical need in the field,” Rech said. “It’s a tough transition for young researchers to make the jump from their training to independently conducting their own research. The support is wonderful, and we will all benefit from being able to interact with the diverse group of people in the Parker Institute network.”

In addition to funding, recipients also benefit from access to a collaborative network of leading immunotherapy researchers, cutting-edge tools and technologies, early data from ongoing clinical trials and pre-published papers, and specimen samples from different clinical trials – to guide their research and translate their discoveries to benefit cancer patients. The Parker Institute model also assists with grant writing so investigators can focus on science.

The two Penn researchers join current Penn Parker fellow Katelyn Byrne, PhD, an instructor of Medicine at Penn, in receiving support from the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

The Parker Institute, which was founded in 2016, is a collaboration among some of the nation’s leading cancer centers including Penn; Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Stanford Medicine; the University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, San Francisco; and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The Parker Institute network also includes more than 40 industry and nonprofit partners, more than 60 labs, and over 300 of the nation’s top cancer researchers. The Institute was created through a $250 million grant from the Parker Foundation, established by Sean Parker, who cofounded the file-sharing computer service Napster and served as the first president of Facebook. 

Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $7.8 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report’s survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $405 million awarded in the 2017 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center — which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report — Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital – the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, a leading provider of highly skilled and compassionate behavioral healthcare.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2017, Penn Medicine provided $500 million to benefit our community.

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