Sabrina Spencer, PhD

The Kimmel Scholars Program funds 15 of the nation’s top young cancer researchers. The Beckman Young Investigator Program honors eight promising early-career faculty members. The Searle Scholar program honors 15 young faculty who have highly inventive ideas. The Boettcher Investigators program, supported by the Webb-Waring Foundation, supports early-career Colorado research in the biomedical sciences. This year, CU Cancer Center investigator, Sabrina Spencer, PhD, won all four prestigious awards, validating her creative approach to studying the complex signals that can determine whether stressed and damaged cells die or survive to seed cancer. Spencer is an assistant professor in the CU Boulder Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“Cells constantly receive information both from the external environment and from their internal state that together determine whether they will divide and proliferate, or stop dividing and enter a quiescent (dormant) state. My lab is interested in understanding how subtle differences in signaling can make even genetically identical cells behave differently from one another,” Spencer says.

Previous winners of the Kimmel award include CU Cancer Center director, Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD. Likewise, Spencer points out that in addition to financial support, the recognition of these awards validates the direction of her research and puts her in the inspiring company of yesterday’s young investigators who went on to make significant contributions to their fields.

“When you propose approaches or concepts outside mainstream cancer research, you think maybe they’re so out-there that no one will believe that you will be successful. Getting these grants encourages me to think maybe our ideas will work. Some of the people that inspire me most have won these same awards and to think that I might be in their company is exciting. It’s a big honor,” Spencer says.

Earning government-sponsored funding from the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute is a Catch-22 in which securing grants requires having enough funding to generate preliminary data showing the promise of a proposed approach. Young investigators may struggle to earn the early funding that allows them to generate this preliminary data. Foundations and other private awards help young investigators do the early work that can bridge the gap between postdoctoral work and the ability to earn independent government funding.

One project Spencer’s lab will explore is the early signaling that allows melanoma cells to overcome targeted cancer therapies.

“Before the cells develop mutations that allow them to resist a drug, some cells have to tolerate the drug long enough to develop these mutations. We’re looking at the inception of this resistance,” Spencer says.

Specifically, Spencer studies signaling pathways that allow cells, and specifically cancer cells, to pause their growth in favor of a “survival mode” called quiescence that allows them to enter a kind of cellular hibernation in the presence of drugs that might otherwise cause their death. One method Spencer uses to determine whether cells proliferate or enter quiescence when challenged is the combination of time-lapse microscopy with the gene-editing tool CRISPR that allows her to add fluorescent trackers to a cell’s genome. Fluorescent proteins are then manufactured by the cells, allowing Spencer’s lab to visualize whether cells are proliferating or hibernating.

“Accomplishing great science isn’t just doing the obvious next step, but looking ten steps ahead. It’s the inspiration to try crazy things,” Spencer says.

These awards fund Spencer’s creative early work. The results may not only be the launch of a promising career in science, but new understanding of how cancer cells escape therapeutic drugs and with it, the ability to combat this escape.