Two-time JSU graduate among inaugural Biden Cancer Moonshot Scholars cohort

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Jelani Zarif

JANS – Jackson State University alum Jelani Zarif, Ph.D., M.S., has received the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) R01 Cancer Moonshot Scholar Award. The Biden-Harris Administration, through the NCI, is committing $5.4 million in the first year of these multi-year awards to support the inaugural cohort of 11 Cancer Moonshot Scholars. “We are very excited about getting started on this important work. This funding will enable us to target cells that are present in prostate tumors called macrophages. These cells provide prostate cancer cells with prometastatic factors,” Zarif said.

The diverse set of scholars will drive progress in the fight to end cancer by pursuing projects at institutions across the country. The initial cohort of Cancer Moonshot Scholars is working to make progress in prostate, pancreatic, liver, lung, cervical, brain, and rectal centers. Zarif is a Robert E. Meyerhoff Endowed Professor and Assistant Professor of Oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is also a member of the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

The only HBCU graduate in the cohort, Zarif was introduced to cancer research as an undergraduate at Jackson State. He joined the laboratory of his late JSU genetics professor, Stephen Ekunwe, Ph.D. The team of researchers, led by Ekunwe, studied prostate cancer in the John A. Peoples building on the college’s campus. “I had very fundamental questions about cancer when I was very young. I wanted to know why some people lived and others, unfortunately, did not and what distinguished an aggressive tumor from an indolent one,” explained Zarif, who is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Zarif and his team of researchers will test the hypothesis that immune-suppressive mannosereceptor (CD206) positive tumorassociated macrophages (TAMs) drive prostate cancer resistance and that the novel anti-CD206 peptides will reprogram TAMs toward a pro-inflammatory phenotype and enhance
therapeutic responses.

As a student, Zarif was a proud member of the Sonic Boom of the South marching band’s trumpet section. In 2005, he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biology in 2007 from Jackson State. Zarif earned his Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from Michigan State University in 2014. He then completed two post-doctoral fellowships at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and joined the faculty in 2018.

The Cancer Moonshot program seeks to diversify the NCI R01 portfolio by enhancing the number of applications submitted by Early Stage Investigators from diverse backgrounds, including those from groups identified as underrepresented in the biomedical, clinical, behavioral, and social sciences research workforce.

The emerging leaders in cancer research and innovation will use the funding to help change what is possible, with projects to increase prevention and early detection efforts for patients from underrepresented populations, create new cancer treatments for all Americans, and further the nation’s expertise in addressing hard-to-treat cancers. The Administration intends to fund up to 30 additional Cancer
Moonshot Scholars by 2025.
The next application period will
close in February 2024.

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Two-time JSU graduate among inaugural Biden Cancer Moonshot Scholars cohort

By Jackson Advocate News Service
November 21, 2023