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CRI Announces Winner of 2009 Frederick Alt Award for New Discoveries in Immunology

Dr. Anjana Rao of the Harvard Medical School and Immune Disease Institute honored at Annual CRI Fellows & Students Dinner in New York City

NEW YORK, NY – October 6, 2009 – The Cancer Research Institute, Inc. (CRI), a nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to the support and coordination of scientific and clinical efforts that will lead to the immunological treatment, control, and prevention of cancer, has announced that Anjana Rao, Ph.D., professor of pathology at the Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, is the winner of the Cancer Research Institute 2009 Frederick W. Alt Award for New Discoveries in Immunology.

CRI presented the award to Dr. Rao during a special reception and dinner for CRI-funded graduate students and postdoctoral fellows held the evening of September 30 at The Harvard Club in New York City. The dinner took place in conjunction with the Institute’s 17th Annual International Cancer Immunotherapy Symposium, held Sept. 30-Oct. 2, 2009.

In her presentation of the award to Dr. Rao, Dr. Ellen Puré, professor of the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program at The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, PA, and chair of the Cancer Research Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship Committee, lauded Dr. Rao’s seminal contributions to our understanding of the role of gene transcription factors in cellular differentiation and function, particularly in immune cells.

Dr. Rao’s research is focused on the molecular mechanisms of signal transduction and gene expression in T lymphocytes, important cells of the immune system that have proven critical to immune control of cancer. Dr. Rao’s early work identified the role of transcription factors in directing T-cell differentiation, especially different functional subsets of T cells.

She elucidated intracellular signal transduction pathways leading from store-operated calcium entry through what is known as CRAC (calcium-release activated calcium entry) channels to activation of the transcription factor known as NFAT (nuclear factor of activated T cells). She also identified the first member of the NFAT family as well as the CRAC channel pore subunit critical to this response.

Her work has defined how NFAT and other transcription factors regulate immune responses including the induction of peripheral immune tolerance and regulatory T-cell function, both of which directly affect the immune system’s ability to eliminate cancer by inhibiting the activity of other immune cells.

Her studies of the genetic and epigenetic regulation of T-cell differentiation have provided critical insights into DNA regulatory regions that are involved in this type of transcriptional regulation, and also in the nuclear processes that control chromatin assembly and expression of genes that direct lineage specification. In addition to having impact on the immune response, her work has broader implications for cell lineage differentiation and specification in general.

Dr. Rao completed her undergraduate and graduate studies in science at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India.  In 1978, she received her Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University. In 1981, Dr. Rao received a Cancer Research Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship Award while she carried out her postdoctoral training in the lab of Dr. Harvey Cantor at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. She joined the Harvard faculty in 1981 as an instructor in pathology, became an assistant professor in 1984, an associate professor in 1993, and in 1995 she was appointed as a senior investigator of what was then known as the Center for Blood Research, now known as the Immune Disease Institute, which is headed by Dr. Fred Alt, in whose honor this award is named.

In accepting the award, Dr. Rao expressed her gratitude for the Cancer Research Institute’s support of her work. “The CRI postdoctoral fellowship jumpstarted my career, as it has jumpstarted the careers of so many postdoctoral fellows and students,” she told the audience of current CRI fellows, graduate students, and other members of the CRI community including trustees, scientific advisors, and staff. “Getting such an award at the beginning of your career makes one feel independent—the idea is now that you can do whatever it is you want to do, to think of good ideas and do them.”

The Cancer Research Institute annually bestows thirty fellowship awards totaling approximately $4.4 million. Since the establishment of the CRI Postdoctoral Fellowship Program in 1971 (now called the Irvington Institute Fellowship Program of the Cancer Research Institute), CRI has supported 968 young research scientists, many of whom have since gone on to become leaders in the fields of immunology and tumor immunology.


Media Contact
Brian Brewer, CRI Director of Communications
(212) 688-7515, ext. 242, or bbrewer@cancerresearch.org.

About the Frederick W. Alt Award for New Discoveries in Immunology
The Frederick W. Alt Award for New Discoveries in Immunology is presented annually to a former postdoctoral fellow of the Cancer Research Institute in recognition of outstanding success in academia or industry for research that may have a potentially major impact on immunology. The award is named after Dr. Frederick W. Alt, co-chief of molecular medicine and the Charles A. Janeway Professor of Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, MA, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School / Immune Disease Institute in Boston, MA, is a member of the Cancer Research Institute Scientific Advisory Council who also served for many years as chair of the Postdoctoral Fellowship Committee of the Irvington Institute for Immunological Research, an organization that merged with the Cancer Research Institute in 2007. For more than 30 years, Dr. Alt has studied how instability within the genome leads to cancer and has worked to uncover the cellular mechanisms that normally suppress this process. His discoveries have led to a greater understanding of the ways that cancer develops, and they hold promise for finding ways to control the disease.

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