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Penn Neurosurgeon Nduka M. Amankulor (Photo from Penn Medicine).

Penn neurosurgeon Nduka Amankulor was one of 11 researchers selected to join the inaugural Cancer Moonshot Scholars cohort.

The Cancer Moonshot Scholars program — reignited by the White House last year —   supports early-career investigators in cancer research and innovation. Amankulor, the director of the Penn Brain Tumor Center and associate professor of Neurosurgery, and his partners were granted a total of $5.4 million as a call to action to advance brain cancer research. Amankulor will receive $683,099 of that total in 2023. 

The award, which will be disseminated over the next five years, will support Amankulor’s lab and other Penn researchers collaborating on the project, including Stephen Bagley, John Wherry, Christina Jackson, and Richard Phillips at Penn Medical school and Kai Tan at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania.

Amankulor said his initial reaction to receiving the award was “relief, then joy and happiness” for the patients who will benefit from the research.

“Research is the single most important thing that we can do for these [brain cancer] patients,” he said. “[Currently] there's a 0 percent cure rate, essentially, as long as you have primary brain cancer, whether it's a grade two or grade three or grade four, all these patients will die.”

For the past eleven years, the Amankulor lab has studied how specific mutations enable brain tumors to “escape” the immune system. This grant will provide the necessary support for Amankulor and his team to proceed in clinical trials to discover drugs that can reactivate the immune system.

“The most important part is to understand why patients respond [to a drug] or why they don’t,” Amankulor said. “We will be able to see specifically what genes and immune cells are associated with response to specific subtypes of brain cancer.”

Amankulor said his dedication to research in brain cancer stems from a personal reason, with his own father passing away from a brain tumor when he was only 16. Working as a neurosurgeon and interacting with patients has also been a driving motivation.

“There's a uniqueness to being able to look at, to take care of patients," he said. "They motivate you to really put everything — your heart and soul — into the research because you see patients die from brain tumors."

The Cancer Moonshot Scholars cohort represents a diverse set of researchers, pursuing projects across the country in prostate, pancreatic, liver, lung, cervical, brain, and rectal cancers. The government intends to fund up to 30 additional scholars by 2025.

With the program being supported by President Joe Biden, the National Cancer Institute, and other national organizations, being named a scholar is a “call to action” for Amankulor.

“What we've been doing for the last 11 years is being recognized,” he said. “We will stop nothing short of curing this disease, and that’s my ultimate goal.”