U-M neuroscientist Maria G. Castro, Ph.D., has been selected to receive the 2016 Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award, an honor that provides up to seven years of research funding for her brain tumor work.
The award comes from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a federal agency that supports research to better understand fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease.
“It feels like my work has been recognized in a very special way,” says Castro, professor of neurosurgery and cell and developmental biology at the University of Michigan Medical School. “The longer duration of the grant will enable me to develop cutting-edge and innovative science and make strides in finding a cure for malignant brain cancer.”
Authorized by the United States Congress in 1983, the Javits award honors the late U.S. Senator Jacob K. Javits of New York, who was a strong advocate for research on a variety of neurological disorders. Senator Javits suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the disabling neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The award is given to individual investigators who have demonstrated exceptional scientific excellence and productivity in research supported by the NINDS and who are expected to conduct innovative research over the next seven years. It provides guaranteed funding for four years, after which three additional years may be awarded. Investigators are nominated by either NINDS staff or members of the National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stroke Council, from a pool of competing applicants during a grants cycle. The council must approve each recommendation, with final selection being made by the NINDS director.
The grant provides more than $2.8 million in research and administrative funding over the seven-year period. These funds will support Castro’s research with the ultimate aim to develop novel immunotherapies for brain cancer (glioma), studying basic immune-biology mechanisms leading to clinical implementation. Castro is investigating the role of the tumor immune-microenvironment in tumor progression and response to therapeutics; and the mechanisms affecting the migration of immune cells into the tumor microenvironment.
Castro has recently focused her research efforts on the study of the activation and deactivation of genes that affect brain cancer progression.
In addition, her lab is aiming to uncover the role of molecules produced by cancer cells in mediating the response to immunotherapies. To achieve this, Castro and her team developed novel rodent models of malignant brain cancer, using in vivo gene transfer technologies. These genetically engineered mouse models, which harbor genetic alterations present in the human disease, have proven to be powerful platforms to uncover the mechanisms that mediate tumor progression and implement novel immunotherapies for glioma.
The ultimate aim of Castro’s laboratory is to translate these novel immunotherapy approaches to human Phase I clinical trials. Castro’s innovative work has led to an FDA-approved gene therapy Phase 1 clinical trial for malignant brain cancer, ongoing at U-M’s Department of Neurosurgery.
Castro is also the R. C. Schneider Endowed Chair in Basic and Translational Neurooncology.
"Receiving the Javits Award constitutes a major milestone in the career of a neuroscientist, an honor that only very few investigators attain," said Karin Muraszko, M.D., chair of the U-M Department of Neurosurgery. “We congratulate Dr. Castro, not only for receiving the recognition of her peers in the scientific community, but for performing groundbreaking research to improve the outcomes for patients suffering from devastating brain cancer."