Inspiring tomorrow’s leaders in cancer research

An $11.4 million gift from anonymous donors will establish the Elwood V. Jensen Scholars Program in the Section of Hematology/Oncology at the University of Chicago Medicine. Designed to grow the next generation of leaders in oncology research, the program offers exceptional trainees sufficient resources and time to devote to rigorous research that informs innovations in cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.
Elwood Jensen (1920-2012)
Elwood Jensen (1920-2012)
Elwood Jensen (1920-2012)
Elwood Jensen (1920-2012)

The donors were motivated by the impact UChicago Medicine has had in advancing discovery and treatment of cancer, naming the program after one of its early pioneers, Elwood V. Jensen, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, who passed away in 2012. Jensen received the Lasker Award, known as the “American Nobel,” in 2004 for his work establishing the role of hormones in cancer and pioneering chemotherapy—helping to radically change the way doctors treat the disease.

The inaugural Elwood V. Jensen Scholar, Fred Howard, MD, recently completed his third year as a medical oncology fellow at UChicago Medicine.

“This award will provide essential support to allow me to wholeheartedly focus on my research, in a place uniquely suited to drive its success,” said Howard.

Embracing unconventional approaches

“Elwood V. Jensen’s spirit of scientific curiosity and willingness to embrace alternative approaches led to the development of new treatments that have since helped millions,” said Sonali M. Smith, MD, Elwood V. Jensen Professor in Medicine and chief of the Section of Hematology/Oncology.

Like Jensen, Howard takes an out-of-the-box approach to his study of breast cancer, using multiple streams of data, including artificial intelligence and clinical information, to make clinically relevant predictions. Through this work, Howard seeks to identify which patients will respond well to chemotherapy, while also better predicting which patients’ disease is likely to recur.

“We use artificial intelligence to look at factors that a pathologist may not be able to see and that aren’t necessarily intuitive,” Howard said. “By combining information across different areas, like genetics and pathology, we’ve been able to outperform other models and more accurately predict risk of recurrence.”

Using this model, Howard hopes to decrease delays in treatment and reduce the cost of care, while also providing a tool that can be used anywhere.

“I would like to evaluate these approaches in low-resource settings to impact the health of women with breast cancer worldwide,” he said.

With funding as the inaugural Elwood V. Jensen Scholar, Howard seeks to transition to more independent research, eventually building his own lab and acquiring additional resources to speed his work.

“I hope to expand our dataset and incorporate imaging data, like breast MRIs, to develop more accurate predictive models,” he said. Howard’s research mentors include Alex Pearson, MD, PhD, Rita Nanda, MD, Funmi Olopade, MD, and Dezheng Huo, PhD.

“I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I have so far without the enthusiastic support of my mentors as I pursue my unique research interest,” he said.

Howard also credits his success to the University’s multidisciplinary environment, as well as access to high-performance computing resources and a diverse repository of breast cancer data.

As further testimony to his accomplishments, in May 2022, Howard received a Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology. This award is bestowed on promising young physicians to support their career development and encourage quality research.

Building and sustaining a strong team

The Elwood V. Jensen Scholars Program bolsters the mission of UChicago Medicine’s planned new cancer center—Chicago’s first freestanding clinical cancer center—which will be a hub for compassionate, innovative care and leading-edge cancer research.

“We cannot create a world-class facility that reimagines cancer care without an outstanding team of expert physician-scientists,” said Kunle Odunsi, MD, PhD, director of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Thanks to this generous gift, we will be able to empower the next generation of cancer researchers who will be trained by our exceptional faculty to push the boundaries of what is possible.”

Importantly, because the donor established an endowed fund, the gift will support generations of promising young physician-scientists for years to come, who will go on to become mentors and leading cancer researchers.

“Creating an endowment demonstrates trust that we will be here in perpetuity to contribute to cancer research,” said Smith. “We are so grateful for this support, which will help future trainees like Dr. Howard to contribute to innovations in the field and improve the lives of countless patients here in Chicago and around the globe. We are thrilled to see generations of ‘Jensen Scholars’ move the field forward.”

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