VAI scientists awarded for cancer project

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Peter Laird Courtesy Van Andel Institute

The American Association for Cancer Research awarded three Van Andel Institute (VAI) scientists the 2020 AACR Team Science Awards.

VAI professor Peter Laird, Ph.D.; Director’s Scholar Stephen B. Baylin, MD, FAACR; and associate professor Hui Shen, Ph.D. were recognized for their roles in the establishment and success of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA).

The first Team Science Award includes Laird and Baylin, as well as other project leaders and individuals who were central to TCGA. The second Team Science Award includes Laird, Baylin and Shen, along with 127 additional members of the current TCGA project team.

“The insights revealed by TCGA will continue to transform cancer research and treatment for years to come,” said Dr. Peter Jones, VAI chief scientific officer. “We are thrilled to join AACR and the scientific community in celebrating the contributions of Dr. Laird, Dr. Baylin, Dr. Shen and all those who took part in the project.”

Announced in 2005 and completed in 2018, TCGA was a National Cancer Institute and National Human Genome Research Institute-led effort to molecularly map 33 cancer types, including 10 rare cancers.

Hundreds of scientists in the U.S. and Canada participated, resulting in detailed analyses of more than 20,000 biospecimens and numerous scientific publications that continue to fuel breakthroughs and innovations. It has become an invaluable asset for the development of precision therapies and the identification of new drug targets.

Following TCGA’s inception, Laird and Baylin established and co-led the epigenetics analyses arm of the project, which cataloged molecular changes that influence cancer risk by altering how genes are expressed rather than the genes themselves. Laird went on to lead epigenetic analyses for TCGA through its completion, as well as the project’s effort to characterize cancers by their molecular subtype.

“TCGA was a vastly complex undertaking that demonstrated the power of team science initiatives,” Laird said. “Each person who worked on the project played a part in its success and in charting future cancer research and therapies built on its findings.”

Laird began working on TCGA while serving as a professor at the University of Southern California and continued when he joined VAI in 2014.

Shen, who also joined VAI from USC in 2014, played a major role in epigenetic data analyses for the project.

Baylin, who co-leads the Van Andel Institute-Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team, holds a primary appointment at Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University. His insight and guidance were central to the genesis and growth of the epigenetics component of TCGA, according to VAI.

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