Yimon Aye awarded young investigator cancer research prize

Yimon Aye, a Howard Milstein faculty fellow and assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences with a secondary appointment at Weill Cornell Medicine, is one of six winners of this year’s Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research, which supports New York-based scientists exploring innovative avenues in the fight against cancer.

The awards, established in 2014, are given by the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance, dedicated to accelerating cures for cancer by advancing innovative cancer research and facilitating collaborations between science and business.

Prizewinners each receive $200,000 a year for up to three years and are partnered with an industry mentor who helps bring researchers’ discoveries from bench to market. The alliance also facilitates collaborations with other researchers and creates opportunities to present their ideas at conferences and events.

Aye, winner of several early career awards since arriving at Cornell in 2012, said she’s always been interested in applying her chemistry and chemical biology insights to “real-world relevance” in human medicine.

“I was very honored to get the secondary appointment [to Weill Cornell Medicine], which was a big attraction to me in addition to Cornell being a strong university,” said Aye, who has been a lecturer to first-year medical students at Weill Cornell every fall since her arrival.

The work for which Aye and her lab associates were recognized involves the enzyme ribonucleotide reductase (RNR), which they say is the central player in genome surveillance since the beginning of DNA-based life but whose complex regulation has been understudied. The Aye Lab’s work focuses on overlooked functions of a specific subunit of RNR, known as RNR-alpha, and how its interaction with two novel binding partners can either promote or suppress DNA synthesis.

“This project builds on a game-changing idea based on some interesting data we have developed over the past four years,” Aye said. “These results give us confidence that we have uncovered an important niche that may provide novel cancer interventions.”

The lab’s discovery provided the framework for Aye’s successful proposal to the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance.

Aye said one unique aspect of this award was the panel of experts – 30 of the leading cancer biologists in the country, including several Nobel laureates – who conducted the interviews during the third and final stage of the proposal process.

“I have gone through other award competitions,” said Aye, who won a Beckman Young Investigator Award, a National Science Foundation early career award and an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award in 2014, a Sloan Foundation fellowship in 2016 and an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator award in 2017. “But this one was special because several of the interviewers are highly accomplished scientists you wouldn’t often get the opportunity to meet, let alone talk science with or be grilled by. So, when I was invited for the third-round interviews, I was just so excited for the chance to meet these people.”

Much of the Aye Lab’s recent work has focused on a mechanism they call “T-REX,” a chemical procedure that can target and modulate single proteins in live cells and fish, which was detailed in papers published in October in Nature Protocols and in January in Nature Chemical Biology.

The winners of this year’s Pershing Square Sohn Prize will make presentations at the annual Sohn Investment Conference, May 8 in New York.

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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