Howard A. Fine, MD, Wins NIH Director’s Pioneer Award

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Howard A. Fine, MD

Howard A. Fine, MD

Neuro-oncologist Howard A. Fine, MD, of Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, will receive a 5-year, $6 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Pioneer Award for brain cancer research. The award will support Dr. Fine’s approach to modeling deadly brain cancers in the laboratory—an approach that could be crucial for the development of effective therapies.

“I’m thrilled and honored to have been selected for this award,” said Dr. Fine, Founding Director of the Brain Tumor Center and Chief of the Division of Neuro-Oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. “This Pioneer Award will allow us to pursue a brain cancer modeling strategy that represents a bold departure from traditional approaches, which may lead to consequential scientific advances for our patients: new and more effective treatments.”

New Research Strategies

For decades, scientists have tried to model gliomas using patient-derived tumor cell lines cultured in lab dishes or human tumor cells implanted into the brains of mice. Both approaches have significant limitations.

“Traditional lab dish and animal models of gliomas just haven’t been sufficiently representative of clinical disease, and that’s been a big reason for the lack of success therapeutically,” said Dr. Fine, who is also Louis and Gertrude Feil Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and Associate Director for Translational Research at the institution’s Meyer Cancer Center.

Dr. Fine and his colleagues have instead been using advanced stem cell techniques to grow large clusters of functional and interconnected human brain cells, called cerebral organoids, in the laboratory. These cerebral organoids mimic many aspects of a normal 20-week old human fetal brain. Dr. Fine’s laboratory has developed technologies to use these cerebral organoids to examine how individual patients’ gliomas grow and respond to therapies within a realistic biologic environment.

Cerebral organoids, with their brain-like environments, have enabled Dr. Fine and colleagues to model brain cancers more accurately on the molecular level. They also have revealed some of the strange, emergent properties of brain cancers that aren’t visible in traditional models. 

With support from the new NIH award, Dr. Fine and his colleagues plan to enhance the realism of their organoid models by adding two vital components: blood vessels with key properties of cerebral vessels, and immune cells that normally reside in or can enter the brain. ■




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