Baylor College of Medicine researchers have received two of five national awards from The Sontag Foundation to early career scientists for unique and novel brain cancer research proposals.

Dr. Will Parsons, assistant professor of pediatrics – hematology and oncology and molecular and human genetics and a pediatric oncologist at the Texas Children's Cancer Center, and Dr. Benjamin Deneen, assistant professor of neuroscience and a member of the Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine Center at BCM and Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at BCM, Texas Children's Hospital and The Methodist Hospital, have been named recipients of a Sontag Foundation 2011 Distinguished Scientist Award.

Each received a $600,000, four-year award to initiate their individual research projects.

Understanding glial cell development

Deneen's research focuses on glial cell development. Glial cells support neuron function within the central nervous system and comprise approximately 90 percent of the brain. Importantly, the vast majority of adult brain tumors are derived from glial cells and their precursors.

"We do not know much about the early development and molecular control of glial precursors, particularly astrocyte precursors. The goal of this study is to define these key developmental processes," said Deneen.

Ultimately, Deneen hopes to better understand how these developmental processes are re-utilized during brain tumor formation, and advance research of new treatments for brain cancer.

Identifying new genes, genetic pathways

Parsons' research is complimentary to Deneen's, focusing on the genetic characterization of pediatric brain tumors.

The award will help support Parsons' research, which uses high-throughput sequencing to study new genes and genetic pathways in these rare brain tumors that could be potential therapeutic targets.

"We know very little about the genetic makeup of most pediatric brain tumors," said Parsons, who is also a member of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at BCM. "They are often associated with a poor prognosis and generally have limited treatment options."

A better understanding of the mutated genes causing these tumors would be extremely valuable for guiding the development of novel therapies, Parsons said.

The Distinguished Scientists Awards program was established in 2003 to recognize the promise of outstanding early career scientists whose research has the potential to generate new knowledge related to causes, cure or treatment of brain tumors. Since its inception, the program has awarded 29, multi-year awards.

Deneen and Parsons are the first BCM researchers to receive these awards.

The Sontag Foundation, headquartered in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, is a private foundation that funds medical research related to brain cancer throughout the United States and Canada and also funds rheumatoid arthritis research on a national level.