Cancer Researcher Wins Prestigious Grant to Study Cancer Metabolism

Heather Christofk

Heather Christofk, a researcher with the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Institute for Molecular Medicine at UCLA, has received a prestigious grant to study how glucose metabolism is altered in cancer, a condition which leads to tumor growth.

The 2010 Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award, given by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, includes a $450,000 grant over three years. The innovation award is given to early-career scientists whose novel projects have the potential to significantly impact the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Scientists have known since the 1920s that one distinguishing characteristic of cancer cells is their altered glucose metabolism. Compared to normal cells, cancer cells have a “sweet tooth” and use much more glucose from the cellular environment to grow and thrive. This discovery has yet to be exploited for therapeutic benefit.

Christofk’s goal is to identify the proteins within cancer cells that are responsible for their altered glucose metabolism. She plans to grow tumors in mice and then turn off the metabolic switches, monitoring the result using positron emission tomography, an advanced imaging technology. Her research will determine whether targeting tumor metabolism is a feasible approach for cancer therapy and may one day identify novel cancer drug targets.

“The field of cancer metabolism has re-emerged with a great deal of promise in the last few years, yet there are several fundamental questions still to be answered. This award will dramatically accelerate my research and allow me to answer some of these critical questions on a much shorter timetable,” said Christofk, an assistant professor of molecular and medical pharmacology. “Thank you to the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation and the Rachleffs for their generous support. This award is one of the greatest honors a young scientist could hope for.”

A UCLA alumnus, Christofk completed her doctorate at Harvard University. Prior to joining the UCLA faculty, she conducted her postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco Cancer Research Institute.

The Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award winners are selected through a highly competitive and rigorous process by a scientific committee comprised of leading cancer researchers who themselves are considered to be innovators. Only those scientists with a strong vision and passion for finding new and more effective therapies for cancer are selected to receive the award. The program is made possible through the support of Andy and Debbie Rachleff and the Island Outreach Foundation.