Neuroscientist Focused on Brain Cancer Immunotherapy Awarded $2.8M Javits Prize

Neuroscientist Focused on Brain Cancer Immunotherapy Awarded $2.8M Javits Prize

University of Michigan (UM) researcher Maria G. Castro, PhD, has been chosen to receive the 2016 Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award for work into how brain tumors impact the immune system. The $2.8 million prize provides up to seven years of research support.

The Javits award, first authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1983, honors the late U.S. Sen. Jacob K. Javits of New York, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and strongly advocated for neurological research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is the federal agency behind the award, which funds research advancing an understanding of the central nervous system (CNS) and brain in the context of neurological disease. Nominees are usually chosen by either NINDS staff or the National Advisory NINDS Council.

“It feels like my work has been recognized in a very special way,” Dr. Castro, a professor of neurosurgery and cell and developmental biology at the UM Medical School, said in a press release. “The longer duration of the grant will enable me to develop cutting-edge and innovative science and make strides in finding a cure for malignant brain cancer.”

Dr. Castro’s goal is to develop new immunotherapies for glioma (brain cancer) and to study immune-biology mechanisms that might lead to clinical application.

She is now focused on the activation and deactivation of genes that affect brain cancer progression. Overall, she is exploring the role of the tumor immune-microenvironment in tumor progression and therapeutic response, and the mechanisms affecting the migration of immune cells into the tumor microenvironment.

Dr. Castro’s laboratory is also investigating what role molecules produced by cancer cells have in mediating response to immunotherapies. The team developed mouse models of malignant brain cancer using in vivo gene transfer technologies. These models carry human-like genetic alterations present in brain cancer, and have been shown to be important platforms to uncover the mechanisms mediating tumor progression and implement new immunotherapies for glioma.

“Receiving the Javits Award constitutes a major milestone in the career of a neuroscientist, an honor that only very few investigators attain,” said Karin Muraszko, MD, chair of the department of Neurosurgery. “We congratulate Dr. Castro, not only for receiving the recognition of her peers in the scientific community, but for performing groundbreaking research to improve the outcomes for patients suffering from devastating brain cancer.”

Dr. Castro ultimately hopes to translate this work into human clinical trials. Previous work by her lab is now being tested at UM’s Department of Neurosurgery in a Phase 1 clinical trial of a gene therapy in malignant brain cancer.