Benjamin A. Nacev, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology, has been named a Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. With his mentor, Jeremy Rich, MD, Dr. Nacev will receive $600,000 over three years. This award program was designed to increase the number of physicians capable applying translational science from bench to bedside for innovative, breakthrough treatments.
Dr. Nacev focuses his work on group of rare cancers called sarcomas. This family of tumors has few targeted treatments and poor outcomes once the cancer has metastasized. By studying the recurring genetic changes that happen in sarcoma patients, his lab aims to better understand the fundamental biology and bring those findings back to the clinic.
“Our ultimate goal is to identify specific targets in sarcoma patients to create personalized therapies for those patients,” says Dr. Nacev.
One way the Nacev Lab is doing that is by investigating chromatin dysregulation in sarcoma. Chromatin is necessary for successful regulation of gene expression and other DNA-related processes. If genetic alterations in chromatin regulators occur, it can lead to cancer occurrence or growth. Through modeling and studying such recurrent genetic alterations, the lab aims to understand how and through what mechanisms chromatin is dysregulated and how they can use that information to identify therapeutic vulnerabilities.
As his research progresses, Dr. Nacev foresees opening new clinical trials to test specific therapies for the first time in sarcoma patients. Almost all therapies that have come to patients have started with lab-based investigation to understand how a treatment might help a particular set of patients. Understanding how particular genetic alterations in sarcoma affect the tumors could create opportunities for new and more effective treatments.
“Looking back over the history of oncology and development of new drugs, it really has been a series of incremental discoveries that have been linked together and contributed to by many different investigators,” says Dr. Nacev. “Each one of those discoveries has allowed us to build a foundation on which we are able to take care of our patients.”
Both taking care of patients and the incremental discoveries that lead to it highlight why Dr. Nacev loves his work.
“There are two things that compete for the most rewarding part of my job,” says Dr. Nacev. “One is taking care of patients — building relationships with individual patients facing a sarcoma diagnosis is fundamental to what I do. On the other side, I really do enjoy making new discoveries in the laboratory.”