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UNC Lineberger’s Blossom Damania, PhD, and Dirk Dittmer

UNC Lineberger’s Blossom Damania, PhD, and Dirk Dittmer, PhD, are each 2021 recipients of the Hyman L. Battle Distinguished Cancer Research Award, and will be honored at a reception in June 2022 for their individual high impact research accomplishments that have advanced the field of tumor virology, their service to the UNC School of Medicine and university during the pandemic and their co-leadership of UNC Lineberger’s global oncology and virology programs, which collaboratively leverages UNC-Chapel Hill’s expertise in virology, AIDS-associated malignancies, cancer prevention and clinical trials to reduce the growing international disparities in cancer.

“UNC was so fortunate to recruit Blossom and then Dirk to Chapel Hill to expand its already nationally prominent virology program,” said Shelley Earp, MD, UNC Lineberger director and Lineberger Professor of Cancer Research. “During the past 20 years, the program started by Joe Pagano five decades ago with the recruitment of Nancy Raab-Traub and Jack Griffith, has continued its stellar international reputation due in large part to Dirk’s and Blossom’s research. Each has generated profound insights in viral causes of cancer, etiologic agents responsible for 20% of the world’s burden of cancer. Their work, their organization of technical advances and their leadership have kept UNC tumor virology at the forefront.”

The Battle Foundation of Rocky Mount established the award in 2007 to recognize exceptional cancer research at UNC. The honor includes a $25,000 prize for each recipient derived from a permanent Battle Award endowment held by the UNC Health Foundation.

Damania, the Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, co-leader of UNC Lineberger’s Tumor Virology Program and vice dean for research at UNC School of Medicine, is internationally recognized for her seminal research examining the biology of Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpesvirus and how the virus evades immunity and promotes carcinogenesis. Her work has yielded remarkable insights, including the identification of new cancer biomarkers to guide cancer clinical trials.

Dittmer, professor of microbiology and immunology and co-leader of UNC Lineberger’s Tumor Virology Program, is a pioneer in the use of mouse models for Kaposi sarcoma and viral lymphoma. He developed the first humanized mouse model of Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, and his research has led to the development of novel therapies for Kaposi sarcoma. His accomplishments also include the application of genomic technologies to profile viral transcription. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dittmer and his lab members rapidly initiated SARS-CoV-2 sequencing at UNC Lineberger. This work subsequently led to Dittmer being named co-director of the CORVASEQ – Corona Variant Sequencing Surveillance Network, a statewide infrastructure for COVID-19 surveillance efforts.

“The global oncology program has flourished under Dirk’s and Blossom’s  leadership,” Earp said. “They have collaborative projects in India, Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa which have generated discoveries that will improve the lives of people worldwide, including here in North Carolina. They have helped build the cancer effort in collaboration with a host of UNC faculty in infectious diseases, medical and pediatric oncology, surgery, pathology, women’s health, epidemiology, and other public health disciplines particularly at sites in Malawi and South Africa. Their unparalleled ability to secure substantial grant funding has accelerated our ability to expand the global program.”

Dittmer earned his doctorate at Princeton University and completed postdoctoral fellowships in virology and cancer at Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco, respectively. He was appointed to the UNC School of Medicine faculty in 2004 and was named a full professor in 2012.

In his letter nominating Dittmer for the award, Jae Jung, PhD, professor and chair of the department of cancer biology at the Cleveland Clinic, wrote, “If measured solely based on Dr. Dittmer’s many ‘first’ and exceptional contributions to cancer research in AIDS malignancies, Dr. Dittmer would indeed be most deserving of this award. What sets Dr. Dittmer apart from other basic scientists is that his discoveries and dedication have changed clinical cancer therapies in the U.S. and around the world. He has been combating global cancers that affect many disenfranchised patient populations, such as AIDS patients in underdeveloped countries. Dr. Dittmer represents a shining example of what exceptional cancer research means in a public university.”

Joel Palefsky, MD, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco, highlighted Dittmer’s work with the National Cancer Institute-supported AIDS Malignancy Consortium (AMC) in the nomination letter he submitted.

“Dr. Dittmer has made many seminal contributions to the AMC, to the field of HIV-associated cancers and to the field of cancer biology in general. The work that he pioneered in his laboratory has also had widespread impact through his support of multiple AMC investigators and their specific research protocols addressing viral and host gene expression and genetics in HIV-associated cancers.”

Damania earned her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School. She was recruited to UNC School of Medicine in 2000 and was appointed a full professor in 2011 and named vice dean for research in 2016.

Terry Magnuson, PhD, the Kay M. & Van L. Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor, wrote that Damania was highly deserving of the Hyman L. Battle Distinguished Cancer Research Award in his nomination letter. “Dr. Damania’s research has revealed significant insights into how oncogenic human viruses evade host immunity and promote carcinogenesis. She identified novel viral proteins that blunt host immune responses and others that activate cell pathways critical for oncogenesis. Her basic research discoveries identified new cancer biomarkers and guided cancer clinical trials.”

James C. Alwine, PhD, emeritus professor of cancer biology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Damania’s doctoral thesis mentor, wrote in his nomination letter that Damania’s study of the Kaposi sarcoma associated virus produced “paradigm shifting discoveries” that led to clinical studies.

“The impact of Blossom’s inventive work has been to provide much greater understanding of the means, mechanisms and intricacies of viral oncogenesis. [She] uses a unique multi-faceted, cross-disciplinary approach to understanding viral oncogenesis. This has resulted in knowledge spanning the fields of signal transduction, cancer, virology, angiogenesis, immunology, and molecular therapeutics. Her studies are beautiful examples of how excellent basic science research can be translated to the clinics.”