Tufts Professor Wins New Innovator Grant for Cancer Research

Madeleine Oudin, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, receives $2.3 million award from the National Institutes of Health

Cancer researcher Madeleine Oudin has been named a New Innovator by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Tiampo Family Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tufts, Oudin earned the honor for her research into a critical pathway to tumor growth. The award totals $2.3 million over five years.

“This award will allow the lab to explore exciting new directions in our cancer metastasis research,” said Oudin, a neuroscientist and cancer biologist who joined the School of Engineering in 2018. “This fascinating new area of research could lead to the identification of novel methods for diagnosis and treatments for metastatic disease.”

Oudin’s recognition was announced on October 5, along with other 2021 NIH Director’s Awards. The grants, according to NIH, “support highly innovative and broadly impactful biomedical or behavioral research by exceptionally creative scientists,” and are awarded to scientists who pursue “trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH’s mission to advance knowledge and enhance health.”

Oudin is one of 64 early career investigators who received New Innovator grants this year. To qualify, researchers must be within 10 years of completing their final degree or clinical residency and have not received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.

“The science put forward by this cohort is exceptionally novel and creative and is sure to push at the boundaries of what is known,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, in an NIH announcement. “These visionary investigators come from a wide breadth of career stages and show that groundbreaking science can happen at any career level given the right opportunity.”

Oudin’s proposal continues her investigation into the metastasis of cancer, or how tumor cells break off and invade other areas of the body. Ninety percent of cancer deaths are due to metastasis.

The first cancer biologist hired in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the School of Engineering, she leads a team at the Oudin Lab, which studies the microenvironment that surrounds and supports tumors, including the numerous chemical, biophysical, and electrical cues that promote tumor growth. The team’s work aims to better predict which tumors will metastasize and become drug-resistant and to find new ways to treat them. Recent advances include discoveries about the connection between cancer and obesity

The NIH New Innovator award will allow Oudin’s team to investigate a major component of the tumor microenvironment that has not been well studied and yet holds therapeutic potential: the role of nerves.

“For a long time, nerves were not seen as major drivers of tumor growth and metastasis,” she said. “But more recently, the presence of nerves has been shown to be a strong indicator of tumor aggressiveness. Further, it is becoming evident that tumor cells can take on neuronal properties to help them metastasize. With a better understanding of how nerves grow into tumors, how they interact with tumor cells, and how tumor cells take advantage of neuronal properties, we can lead the way toward developing novel effective clinical approaches to prevent, diagnose, and treat metastatic disease.”

Oudin holds a master’s in pharmacology and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from King’s College London. She completed her postdoc at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT before joining Tufts in 2018.

As she told Tufts Now shortly after her arrival, her cancer research builds on the university’s strong imaging, tissue engineering, and neuroscience capabilities, with access to several high-end resources in the Science and Engineering Complex.

“The excellent work already being done [at Tufts] in these research areas will open up new and better ways to understand how the tumor environment works,” she said. “Bringing these different technologies to bear on what we know about tumor biology gives us a powerful tool to tackle cancer, and ultimately inform treatment.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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