DCP Early Career Scientist Spotlight Research Seminar Series

NCI DCP Early Career Scientist Spotlight Research Seminar Series

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) Division of Cancer Prevention (DCP) has created the DCP Early Career Scientist Spotlight Research Seminar Series to highlight nominated early career scientists who are advancing research within the areas supported by DCP. These research areas include:

  • Cancer Early Detection Biomarker Development and Screening
  • Intervention Development for Cancer Prevention
  • Precision Cancer Prevention
  • Symptom Science and Management

Beyond their talks, the invited speakers, all DCP Early Career Scientists, will have the opportunity to interact with DCP and the broader NCI staff involved in cancer prevention research. While the overall goal is to increase visibility and provide recognition to the DCP Early Career Scientists, these research seminars alongside interactions with the cancer prevention research community at NCI will also promote the acceleration of progress and innovation of cancer prevention.

These seminars will be held virtually via WebEx.

Upcoming Seminars

Exploring chemoprevention strategies for bladder cancer interception

Venkateshwar Madka, Ph.D


Venkateshwar Madka, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Medicine
Preclinical Bioassay Director
Center for Cancer Prevention and Drug Development
Stephenson Cancer Center
University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center

Date of presentation: Monday, July 29, 2024 | 11am EST

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Venkateshwar Madka is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Medicine, University of Oklahoma HSC and Experimental Bioassays Director at the Center for Cancer Prevention and Drug Development (CCPDD), Stephenson Cancer Center, Oklahoma City. Dr. Madka earned his PhD from the Osmania University, India then received his postdoctoral training in Cancer Chemoprevention at the University of Oklahoma HSC, USA. His research is focused on urinary bladder cancer prevention using chemo- immune- prevention strategies. Using carcinogen induced and transgenic rodent models he investigated several potential chemopreventive candidates and published 42 peer-reviewed articles and reviews. He also made over 65 presentations at various national and international scientific meetings, some of which have received travel awards. Notably he is recipient of AACR Scholar-in-Training Award in Memory of Dr. Lee W. Wattenberg. He is Co-I and Co-PI on several NCI funded grants. His other research interests include inflammation, vaccines, bioactive compounds, and early detection.

Bladder cancer (BC) is one of the most frequently diagnosed neoplasms, with an estimated half a million new cases and 200,000 deaths per year worldwide. Men have a 3-4 times higher risk of developing bladder cancer than women. Cigarette smoking and exposure to chemicals such as aromatic amines, and aniline dyes have been known risk factors for BC. Although most of the patients are diagnosed at non-invasive disease stage, frequent recurrence, lack of response to currently used BCG therapies results in disease progression to invasive disease and metastasis. Therefore, our major focus has been to develop small molecule agents for interception of this deadly disease. Using various preclinical models of BC, we have evaluated agents targeting various mechanisms such as inflammation, cell survival and hormone receptor signaling pathways etc. Some of these repurposed agents have demonstrated significant preventive efficacy against BC progression in preclinical stage and warrant further evaluation.

Past Seminars

Feasibility of Self-Administered, Intravaginal Therapies for Cervical Precancer Treatment in Low- and Middle-Income Countries


Chemtai Mungo, M.D., M.P.H.

Chemtai Mungo, M.D., M.P.H.
Assistant Professor
Obstetrics and Gynecology
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill

Date of presentation: Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | 12pm EST

Dr. Chemtai Mungo is an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She received her medical degree from the University of California San Francisco where she graduated with Distinction in Clinical and Translational Research. She also holds a Master’s in Public Health from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Dr. Mungo was born and raised in Kenya and is passionate about using research to pursue equity in global women's health. Her research is focused on secondary prevention of cervical cancer in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), specifically investigating the feasibility of topical, self-administered therapies for cervical precancer treatment. Dr. Mungo was awarded the ASCO Young Investigator Award in 2021, and in 2022, was awarded an American Association Cancer Research (AACR) Global Fund for Women’s Cancers Career Development Award and the Gilead HIV Scholars Award. The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the National Cancer Institute also support her work.

In 2020, cervical cancer resulted in over 600,000 deaths worldwide, despite being largely preventable through vaccination and screening. The disease primarily impacts women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), who represent 85% of the cases and 90% of the deaths. To combat this, the World Health Organization initiated the '90/70/90' strategy in 2018, aiming for 90% HPV vaccination, 70% screening, and 90% treatment rates by 2030. Achieving these targets could avert 74 million cases and 62 million deaths in LMICs. Recent advancements like effective single-dose HPV vaccines and HPV self-sampling have expanded screening capabilities. However, challenges remain in treating cervical precancer due to the lack of skilled healthcare providers and necessary infrastructure. Dr. Mungo is exploring the feasibility of self-administered intravaginal therapies for cervical precancer treatment in LMICs, which could significantly improve access to treatment in these regions, which maybe transformative in increasing access to precancer treatment and hence reducing global cervical cancer mortality.

CD8+ T Cell Clonal Dynamics in Response to ICB Therapy in Surgically Resectable (Sx) NSCLC

Jonathan Villena-Vargas, M.D.


Jonathan Villena-Vargas, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Clinical Cardiothoracic Surgery
Weill Cornell Medicine

Date of presentation: Friday, April 19, 2024 | 11am EST

As a Thoracic Surgeon and Early-Stage Investigator at Weill Cornell Medicine, Jonathan Villena-Vargas specializes in T cell-based immunotherapy for lung cancer. Through his endeavors, he established a novel biobank and mouse model to investigate metastatic relapse in early-stage lung cancer, emphasizing the role of ICB therapy on tumor-draining lymph nodes. His research has garnered support from an NIH supplement grant, diverse funding sources, and a significant collaboration with Kadmon Therapeutics to explore IL-15 immunomodulators. He has presented my preliminary findings at major National and International conferences in both 2022 and 2023. Importantly, Jonathan aims to leverage nodal memory response to augment our understanding of immune correlates. This ambition sets the stage for enhanced biomarkers and the evolution of next-gen ICB to tackle the global issue of resectable lung cancer. Committed to bridging lab discoveries with clinical applications, he envisions a future as a leading surgeon-scientist at WCM.

Metastasis is the primary cause of mortality in surgically resectable (Sx) non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), with early detection advancements failing to curb metastatic recurrence. The PD-1/PD-L1 pathway inhibition, while standard, fails in up to 80% of patients, underscoring the need for effective treatments, predictive biomarkers, and strategies against metastatic relapse. This research focuses on the role of PD-1 blockade in developing tumor-specific functional T cell memory essential for post-Sx immune surveillance. We aim to identify CD8+ T cell subsets critical for post-surgical immunity, hypothesizing that stem cell-like CD8+ T cells in tumor-draining lymph nodes are critical for immunity. Our objectives include elucidating these cells' role in anti-tumor immunity and their contribution to immune responses. This study will advance understanding of T-cell immunosurveillance, impacting therapeutic strategies, clinical trials, and vaccine development in NSCLC, utilizing a novel "live T cell" biobank and a Sx murine model for comprehensive analysis.

The Role of Neoantigen-Specific T-Cells in Cancer Interception and Immune Monitoring of Lynch Syndrome

Fahriye Duzagac, Ph.D.


Fahriye Duzagac, Ph.D.
Division of Cancer Prevention & Population Sciences Cancer Prevention Research Training Program (CPRTP) Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Clinical Cancer Prevention
MD Anderson Cancer Center

Date of presentation: Friday, March 22, 2024 | 12pm EST

Fahriye Duzagac is a postdoctoral researcher at MD Anderson Cancer Center, focusing on cancer prevention, especially in Lynch Syndrome and mismatch repair-deficient cancers. Her undergraduate works included studying cancer stem cells and immune cells within tumor microenvironments using a microfluidic chip-based model to address tumor heterogeneity. Fahriye’s research encompasses two primary objectives: deciphering the molecular and cellular mechanisms of colorectal cancer with an emphasis on immune prevention, including analyzing immune responses in Lynch Syndrome and tracking the transformation from pre-cancerous lesions to invasive colon cancer. Additionally, she is identifying and validating recurrent frameshifted peptide neoantigens in Lynch Syndrome through extensive genomic and transcriptomic analyses and studying the clonal dynamics of neoantigen-specific T cells, key for developing preventive vaccines and improving early cancer detection. Her dedication to this field has been recognized with the CPRIT Postdoctoral Fellowship in Cancer Prevention, and more recently, her selection as an NCI-DCP Early Career Scientist.

Lynch Syndrome (LS) is a hereditary condition marked by mutations in mismatch repair genes, leading to a high risk of colorectal (50-80%) and endometrial (40-60%) cancers, among others. These mutations generate neoantigens, triggering an immune response even in pre-cancerous lesions. Our single-cell omics analysis of LS carriers' colonic tissue revealed a robust immune presence, with T-cell activation and differentiation evident. However, our findings also indicated signs of T-cell exhaustion and dysfunction in active cancer stages, underscoring the critical need for early detection and timely intervention. We explored the potential of neoantigen-based vaccines by identifying and testing immunogenic neoantigens, with a 65% validation rate. Our ongoing research focuses on the immune responses of these neoantigen-specific T cells, aiming to develop TCR-based immune monitoring and vaccination strategies for early cancer interception in LS carriers. This approach could significantly impact the management and prevention of cancer in this high-risk population.

Harnessing the Potential for Immune Interception in Pancreatic Cancer High-Risk Cohort

Neeha Zaidi, M.D.

Neeha Zaidi, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Oncology
Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center
Johns Hopkins University

Date of presentation: Monday, February 12, 2024 | 12pm EST

Neeha Zaidi is a physician-scientist and oncologist who focuses on the development of vaccine strategies for the treatment and interception of pancreatic cancer. Specifically, her work focuses on targeting mutated KRAS which is expressed in up to 90% of pancreatic cancers as well as associated precursor lesions. She is leading the first trial to test a mutant KRAS vaccine for pancreatic cancer interception in high–risk cohorts either with germline predisposition and/or high–risk intrapapillary mucinous neoplasia. Their work utilizes single cell technologies to analyze the vaccine-induced T cell transcriptome and repertoire, as well as spatial transcriptomics to assess changes in the cellular architecture in premalignant tissue. In tandem, mouse models are used to test strategies to enhance vaccine efficacy by (a) identifying MHC II neoantigens; (b) using molecular dynamics to predict immunogenic neoantigens; and (c) studying the temporal sequence of changes in cellular composition as premalignancy progresses to PDAC.

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) remains a deadly disease and is projected to be the third leading cause of death by 2030. Contemporary immunotherapies have shown little to now response in PDAC. However, we and others find the premalignant lesions PanINs (or pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia) are less immunosuppressive and more amenable to vaccine interception strategies. Mutated KRAS is the earliest driver that is expressed in up to 90% of precursor lesions and thus serves as an attractive off-the-shelf vaccine target for interception. Notably, at least 10% of PDACs arise from a genetic predisposition. We have tested a pooled long peptide vaccine targeting the six most common KRAS mutations in high-risk cohorts after establishing both safety and immunogenicity in patients who had undergone PDAC resection and received standard-of-care adjuvant chemotherapy. In both studies, we have demonstrated an induction of de novo, high quality T cell responses post-vaccination.

Tuning the organ-selectivity of mRNA expression through dendrimer-based lipid nanoparticles

Fan Zhang, Ph.D.


Fan Zhang, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Pharmaceutics
University of Florida

Date of presentation: Monday, January 29, 2024 | 12pm EST

Fan Zhang, Ph.D. received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in Materials Science & Engineering. His graduate work established the guiding principles for designing nanomedicines to target neuroinflammation. To expand the clinical impact of his research, he then undertook postdoctoral training at the clinical research division of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. This experience solidified his foundation in immuno-oncology, cell & gene therapy, and experimental tumor models. Dr. Zhang’s research focuses on developing synthetic nanoplatforms to direct immune cells as ‘living therapeutics’. To this end, his laboratory integrates materials science, immunology, synthetic biology, and translational medicine to create novel nanotherapeutics for controlled modulation of the immune system. The overarching goal of his research is to establish a fundamental understanding of nanotherapeutic design and the ways it interacts with the immune system. The ultimate goal of his research is to translate nanomedicine to the clinic.

The predominant liver-targeting of lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) significantly limited the general application of IVT-mRNA as a systemic therapy. To identify novel LNPs that deliver mRNA beyond the liver, we constructed a library of ionizable lipids using dendrimer as a scaffold. Through a combination of in vitro and in vivo screening, we discovered that the structure of internal amines (i.e., secondary, tertiary, or quaternary amines) within the ionizable lipids determines the selectivity of mRNA expression in either spleen, liver, or lung; The apparent pKa of the DLNPs further influence the amount of expression in these organs. Guided by this mechanism, we designed 9 patentable lead mRNA formulations with superior in vivo transfection than FDA-approved LNPs. This discovery provides guiding principles for rationally designing LNP for spleen targeting. Implemented in clinics, this delivery platforms can be used for targeted delivery of RNAs to spleens as prophylactic or therapeutic vaccines for immune-related disorders.

Read more about this early career opportunity!

Please email NCIDCPworkforce@mail.nih.gov if you have any questions or inquiries about this research seminar series.

Especially if:

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