SCI Innovation Awardee

March 2023

A $50,000 SCI Innovation award was awarded to Tian Yi Zhang, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, and her collaborator David Kurtz, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine (Oncology), for their project entitled “Inventing a noninvasive way to detect measurable residual disease (MRD) in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) using circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA).” Dr. Zhang is a physician-scientist with an early-phase clinical trials program as well as a bench-based research program aimed to improve the outcomes of patients with acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive hematological cancer with dismal long-term outcomes.

Acute myeloid leukemia is an extremely aggressive blood cancer with poor long-term outcomes due to disease progression, relapse, or complications related to AML-directed therapy. Despite the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of new therapies resulting in improvement in the proportion of elderly AML patients who can now achieve clinical remission, methods to personalize therapy and identify the optimal treatment to tailor to each AML patient’s AML genome are needed. Dr. Zhang develops a noninvasive way to track AML burden without the need for painful bone marrow biopsies. Taking advantage of the fact that AML tumor cells shed short fragments of DNA into the bloodstream as they divide and turn over, Dr. Zhang will use next-generation sequencing and uniquely designed barcodes to detect these short DNA fragments from the blood of AML patients. This approach will allow elderly and frail AML patients to avoid repeated bone marrow biopsies. It will also provide physicians with important longitudinal data and make personalized cancer therapy decisions possible.