Stopping Cancer Early – The Best Possible Investment


Canary Center at Stanford associate member awarded NIH grant for high-risk, high-reward research

December 24, 2018

Christina Curtis, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and genetics and an associate member of the Canary Center at Stanford for Cancer Early Detection, was awarded the Pioneer Award in October from the National Institutes of Health. The award provides up to $3.5 million, dispensed over five years, to investigators at all career levels to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical or behavioral science.

Curtis plans to use her award to study how human tumors develop and to predict their progression. Her research focuses on understanding cancer systems biology, or the complex way in which many aspects of biology interact in healthy and diseased states. Akin to weather forecasting, the goal is to ultimately allow clinicians to anticipate how a tumor will behave over time, as well as to steer its course and tailor treatment options.

“Characterizing how a patient’s tumor changes over time, adapts to therapy and sometimes spreads to other tissues is challenging since this process often cannot be directly measured,” Curtis said. “Yet, learning cancer’s evolutionary rulebook will give us clues about a patient’s prognosis and is a necessary step toward the development of predictive models.”

To overcome these challenges, Curtis has developed powerful computational and statistical techniques to infer an evolutionary history of tumors by analyzing the patterns of mutations present in their genomes and comparing these with virtual tumors simulated under different scenarios. She is also working to measure tumor adaptation during development and tumor progression in real time by leveraging new methods to trace cell lineages.