PHILADELPHIA — The Basser Center for BRCA at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center has announced that Ashok Venkitaraman, MBBS, PhD, the Ursula Zoellner Professor of Cancer Research and director of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge, is the recipient of its fifth annual Basser Global Prize. Venkitaraman’s work is widely recognized for helping explain how individuals with inherited BRCA2 mutations are predisposed to cancer.
Each year the award recognizes a leading scientist who has conceptually advanced BRCA1/2-related research that has led to improvements in clinical care. Individuals with mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have an exceptionally high risk of breast or ovarian cancer. Currently, the most effective preventive strategy is surgical removal of the breasts and/or ovaries.
Venkitaraman’s laboratory discovered that BRCA2 plays a critical role in repairing the human genome, and has been instrumental in showing how mutations in BRCA2 incite genome instability, accelerating cancer development. This work has provided the scientific basis for assessing cancer risk in people who carry different BRCA2 mutations, and for new treatments for cancers arising in these patients. Venkitaraman’s current research focuses on deeper understanding of how cancer is initiated in patients with BRCA2 mutations, in an effort to identify new opportunities for early, non-invasive intervention. His laboratory recently uncovered how certain chemicals found in the environment or made in the body can trigger genome instability in cells carrying mutant BRCA2. His team is now exploiting this discovery to devise future approaches for cancer prevention and treatment.
“It is our privilege to recognize Dr. Venkitaraman for his inspiring accomplishments, which have significantly contributed to our understanding of how cancer is suppressed by genes such as BRCA2,” said Susan Domchek, MD, executive director of the Basser Center for BRCA and the Basser Professor of Medicine in Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. “His pioneering work has helped clarify the basic mechanisms that govern genome repair, replication, and segregation during cell division, as well as their roles in cancer formation and treatment. This knowledge is making a difference for patients with BRCA1/2 mutations by giving them better options for targeted therapies and improved quality of life.”
The award presentation will be accompanied by Venkitaraman’s keynote address at the annual Basser Center for BRCA Scientific Symposium on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. The Basser Global Prize provides $100,000 in unrestricted support of the winner's BRCA1/2-related research efforts, a Basser trophy, and $10,000 cash prize, which will be awarded at the symposium.
“It is an honor to be recognized in this way by the Basser Center, which is at the forefront of efforts to improve the outcome of patients who bear BRCA1/2 mutations,” Venkitaraman said. “The Basser Global Prize will greatly enhance my laboratory’s ability to pursue promising new research avenues.”
Venkitaraman trained in medicine at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, India, before completing his PhD at University College London. He was a faculty member at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, before appointment to the Zoellner Professorship in 1998. He is a fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge and was elected to the Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences in London in 2001 and to the EMBO academy in Heidelberg in 2004. Venkitaraman directs the Medical Research Council’s Cancer Unit in Cambridge, whose mission is to advance understanding of the earliest steps in human cancer development, and translate this knowledge to improvements in early detection, risk stratification and treatment, using innovative enabling technologies.
The Basser Center was established in 2012 through a $25 million gift from Penn alumni Mindy and Jon Gray in memory of Mindy Gray’s sister Faith Basser, who died of ovarian cancer at age 44. Earlier this year, the Grays committed another $21 million to cement and propel Penn’s preeminence as a leader in research to improve treatment and prevention strategies for hereditary cancers. The new gift brought the Grays’ total giving to $55 million, following subsequent gifts to support the Center, which advances BRCA gene mutation-related science around the world. The Basser Global Prize was established and subsequently endowed by Shari Basser Potter and Leonard Potter.
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