Dr. James R. Downing of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has been elected to the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences.
Downing, the hospital’s scientific director, deputy director and executive vice president, becomes the sixth member of the institute from St. Jude.
“It is a very nice honor to receive from my scientific peers. Very few scientists are elected to the IOM,” Downing said. “This year, there were only eight individuals working in the area of cancer from across the world elected to the IOM. To be among this group is very high praise.”
The IOM was established in 1970 and now includes more than 1,900 members and foreign associates. Each year, up to 70 new members and 10 foreign associates are elected for their excellence and professional achievement in a field relevant to the institute’s mission.
Other members from St. Jude are Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty; director and CEO Dr. William E. Evans; former St. Jude CEO Dr. Arthur Nienhuis; Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and Tumor Cell Biology chair Dr. Charles Sherr; and Pharmaceutical Sciences chair Mary Relling.
“Dr. Downing’s election to the Institute of Medicine is a great testament to his many scientific accomplishments and a great honor for St. Jude,” Evans said in a prepared statement. “As we continue to focus on finding cures for life-threatening diseases, Dr. Downing is among those leading the way in revealing the genetic causes of childhood cancers.”
Downing is internationally recognized for his contributions to the understanding of the molecular pathology of acute leukemia. In 2010, he helped launch the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital/Washington University Pediatric Cancer Genome Project, the world’s largest project devoted to understanding childhood cancer.
“The first phase of the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project was more successful than I could have possibly imagined,” Downing said. “We rapidly amassed a team that I think is now the best on the world, and we tackled 23 different pediatric cancers.”
The $65 million first phase, which ended in February, includes sequencing the complete normal and cancer genomes of approximately 700 children and adolescents with some of the least understood and most aggressive pediatric cancers. The team was also able to sequence another 2,000 cases at a slightly lower level of resolution, Downing said.
Prior to the project, only one genome had been sequenced. The project has produced key discoveries related to childhood leukemias, brain tumors, central nervous system tumors and eye tumors.
“In every cancer that we’ve looked at, we’ve made fundamental discoveries that have altered the way we think about that cancer,” Downing said. “We’re getting new insights into the mutations driving those cancers and new biologic markers that will help us to better diagnose those cancers and perhaps risk-stratify them. It’s a remarkable set of results coming out of a very focused effort.”
One specific finding identified a common mutation in 80 percent of cases involving diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a highly lethal form of brain cancer.
“This finding provides a glimpse into the nature of the driver mutations in this tumor,” Downing said. “The results provide hope that through a focused effort on understanding how the identified mutation drives the formation of the cancer, we will ultimately be able to develop rational approaches to the treatment of this cancer.”
The project’s $30 million second phase to dig deeper into the genomic landscape of childhood cancers is now underway. In addition, the hospital has undertaken a major effort to translate genomics into clinical decision-making.
Downing joined St. Jude in 1986 as an assistant member in pathology, and he ascended to serve as chair of the department from 1997 to 2009. He was appointed as the institution’s executive vice president and scientific director in 2004 and as its deputy director in 2011.
He has received numerous honors, including the Association for Molecular Pathology Award for Excellence in Molecular Diagnostics, the American Association for Cancer Research Team Science Award and the American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship. In 2013 he was nominated by Time magazine for its list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Away from work, Downing is an avid cyclist, biking an average of 150 miles per week. He and his wife have been married for 36 years, and they have three children (including one who is a scientist at St. Jude) and three grandchildren.