Abramson Cancer Center’s senior deputy director receives award

PHILADELPHIA, PA — Caryn Lerman, PhD, the senior deputy director of Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center (ACC), member of the Institute of Medicine, and co-director of the Penn Medicine Neuroscience Center, has received the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Outstanding Investigator Award, a new grant bestowed upon influential cancer researchers to provide long-term support for their impactful and exceptional cancer research. Lerman, whose research focuses on the interface between neuroscience and cancer prevention, will receive $6.5 million over a seven-year period. Her research explores how the brain’s cognitive control system can be enhanced to improve self-control over behaviors that contribute to cancer risk.

Developed by NCI in 2014, the program provides funding to investigators with outstanding records of productivity in cancer research to continue or embark upon new projects of unusual potential in cancer research. It was developed to provide investigators with substantial time to break new ground or extend previous discoveries to advance biomedical, behavioral, or clinical cancer research.

“This is a remarkable accomplishment, and I am personally very proud that Dr. Lerman, as a leader of the Abramson Cancer Center, received this highly distinguished award,” said Chi Van Dang, MD, PhD, director the University of Pennsylvania’s ACC. “I congratulate her for being among the first to achieve such a prestigious recognition, and look forward to her continued ground-breaking work, situated at an innovative intersection of neuroscience and cancer research. Her discoveries could ultimately translate into new treatments aimed to reduce deaths associated with cancer-related habits.”

Tobacco use and obesity account for over 45 percent of preventable cancer deaths. Yet, these cancer risk behaviors are resistant to long-term change, despite widespread knowledge of the risks. Even with the best treatments available, most people revert to their former practices of cigarette smoking or eating. While behavior change interventions may address the habitual nature of these behaviors, they do not tackle the disruptive brain processes that undermine sustainable behavior change.

This grant will continue to address the bold premise in Lerman’s research: That it’s possible to enhance the brain’s capacity to over-ride behavioral habits that contribute to obesity and cigarette smoking, and ultimately to cancer. Such habits are associated with cognitive impairments and altered brain functions that can interfere with goal-directed behaviors.

Past studies from Lerman’s lab points to the central role of alterations in working memory-related activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (DLPFC), the core of the brain’s cognitive control network, which supports planning, decision-making, and cognitive (self) control. Data show that DLPFC function can be safely restored using a novel and low-cost neuroscience-based interventions.

The grant will fund studies to validate the effects of the intervention, known as DLPFC-targeted transcranial direct current brain stimulation (tDCS), along with cognitive training, for individuals seeking treatment for smoking cessation and weight loss.

Lerman has been continuously funded by NCI since 1989, with grants totaling approximately $67 million in total costs, including a $20 million NCI Provocative Question Award, and has more than 355 peer-reviewed publications. Lerman has served on the NCI Board of Scientific Advisors, the National Human Genome Research Advisory Council, and the National Institutes on Drug Abuse Advisory Council. She is also the past President of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, and an Elected Member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

“The NCI Outstanding Investigator Award addresses a problem that many cancer researchers experience: finding a balance between focusing on their science while ensuring that they will have funds to continue their research in the future,” said Dinah Singer, Ph.D., director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Biology. “With seven years of uninterrupted funding, NCI is providing investigators the opportunity to fully develop exceptional and ambitious cancer research programs.”

(Penn Med)