Mowery Receives Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator Award

Yvonne Mowery

Yvonne Mowery, MD, PhD, the Butler Harris Assistant Professor in Radiation Oncology and a Duke Cancer Institute member, was recently awarded a 2020 Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator Award to pursue her research project — “Evaluating and Targeting Pathways of Treatment Resistance in Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma.”

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation's stated goal, with this career development award, is "to increase the number of physicians capable of moving seamlessly between the laboratory and the patient’s bedside in search of breakthrough treatments.”

The award supports independent young physician-scientists who are conducting disease-oriented research that demonstrates a high level of innovation and is aimed at improving the practice of cancer medicine. The awardees are provided the resources and training structure essential to becoming successful clinical investigators. They're required to commit a minimum of 80% of full-time professional efforts to research; in return, they receive financial support for three years (a total of $600,000 in funds will be allocated for research-related costs), as well as the retirement of up to $100,000 of medical school debt.

“Dr. Mowery competed with the very best junior faculty physician scientists in cancer research from across the country,” said David Kirsch, MD, PhD, the Barbara Levine University Distinguished Professor and Vice Chair for Basic and Translational Research in Radiation Oncology. “As Yvonne’s mentor, I am very proud of this remarkable achievement. I am excited to see the results of her future research, which has the potential to improve the outcomes of head and neck cancer patients treated with radiation therapy.”

Yvonne Mowery, MD, PhD, and David Kirsch, MD, PhD
Yvonne Mowery, MD, PhD, and her mentor David Kirsch, MD, PhD, at the Kirsch Lab.

Christopher Willett, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, called Mowery “an outstanding young physician scientist dedicated to improving the outcomes of patients with head and neck cancer.”

Head and neck cancer has the sixth highest incidence among cancers worldwide, and recurrence rates approach 50% in patients diagnosed with locally advanced disease. Radiation therapy plays a major role in treatment of many head and neck cancers, but mechanisms of resistance to radiation therapy for this disease are poorly understood and treatment options are limited for patients who develop recurrent disease.

Mowery's grant will support next generation sequencing of matched tumor samples from patients at initial diagnosis and after development of recurrent disease within the radiation field to identify pathways contributing to treatment resistance as potential novel therapeutic targets.

“These candidate pathways will be validated and tested in vitro and in vivo utilizing human tumor cell lines and my primary head and neck cancer mouse models,” explained Mowery. “In addition, this grant will help to support a clinical trial evaluating a radiosensitizer (Bay1895344, an inhibitor of ATR kinase) with stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) and pembrolizumab for recurrent head and neck cancer, along with a co-clinical trial of this therapeutic combination in my mouse models.”

Mowery will be the principal investigator for the multi-institutional phase I clinical trial, which has been approved by the Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program within the National Cancer Institute. She said she hopes that her proposed pre-clinical studies and clinical trial will lead to new insights into pathways underlying therapeutic resistance in head and neck cancer. Her long-term goal is to build on these findings to develop and test new treatment strategies. Findings from her laboratory research will serve as the basis for designing rational clinical trials to address key unanswered clinical questions and unmet patient needs — translating scientific discoveries to advancements in patient care.

Mowery received her medical degree and PhD in Pathology from Duke University in 2012. She went on to serve as an Internal Medicine intern then as a Radiation Oncology resident at Duke University School of Medicine. In 2017, she joined the Department of Radiation Oncology as a faculty member. Mowery's clinical interests include radiotherapy for head and neck cancer and for skin cancer. Her basic, translational and clinical research focuses on improving outcomes for patients with head and neck cancer and combining radiation therapy with immunotherapy.

Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation awarded $3.2 million total to four top clinical investigators. In addition to Mowery, they named:

  • Todd A. Aguilera, MD, PhD, with mentors Robert D. Timmerman, MD, and Yang-Xin Fu, MD, PhD, at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas
  • Anusha Kalbasi, MD, with mentors Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, and Christine Brown, PhD, at University of California, Los Angeles
  • Birgit Knoechel, MD, PhD, with mentors Kimberly Stegmaier, MD, and Catherine J. Wu, MD, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston