Nathanael Gray, PhD, the Nancy-Lurie Marks Professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, is one of three researchers awarded the 2019 Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). The award recognizes promising scientists for their accomplishments in the area of cancer research. All recipients must be age 45 or younger at the time of their nomination.
“The body of research represented by this year’s winners touches on three different but equally important areas of cancer research,” says Craig B. Thompson, MD, President and CEO of MSK. “Each of the recipients is conducting investigations that will have a major impact on cancer care in the years to come.”
Gray, who also leads the Dana-Farber chemical biology program, focuses his research on drug development and medicinal chemistry related to targeted therapies for cancer. Most traditional targeted therapies block the activity of cancer-causing proteins. Gray’s lab is taking a different approach: finding ways to degrade these proteins.
“The analogy used with conventional targeted therapies is that the drug is a key and the protein is a door that can be unlocked,” he says. “But what happens when you have a door with no keyhole and no combination? The only way you can get rid of the door is to blow it up. That’s the degradation approach.”
Most medicinal chemists work either at a drug company or in a chemistry department, but Gray sees great value in working at a cancer center. “This is the most valuable environment I could be in,” he says. “I’m collaborating with basic cancer scientists as well as physicians. All of us are focused on the problem of cancer. My job is to figure out which problems are tractable and then figure out an approach for solving them.”
Four drugs that Gray has had a hand in developing have already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration or are currently in clinical trials. “We plan to continue working on targets that were once considered ‘undruggable’ by using this protein-degradation approach,” he says.
Since it was first presented in 2001, the biennial Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research has recognized 31 scientists and awarded a total of more than $1 million in prize money. The award was created to honor Marks, President Emeritus of MSK, for his contributions as a scientist, teacher, and leader during the 19 years he headed the center.
The prize winners were selected by a committee made up of prominent members of the cancer research community. Each winner will receive a medal, an award of $50,000 and will speak about their research at a scientific symposium at MSK on December 5.
The other 2019 winners are Joshua Mendell of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Christopher Vakoc of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.