2019 Recipient — Rugang Zhang, PhD

Dr. Rugang Zhang

Rugang Zhang, PhD

Developing Epigenetic Therapies for Ovarian Cancer

Project Summary

High-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC) accounts for the majority of ovarian cancer-associated mortality. The high mortality of HGSOC is largely due to: 1) lack of novel therapeutic approaches and 2) incomplete understanding of molecular mechanisms underlying HGSOCs. For example, compared with our understanding of the genetic changes associated with HGSOC, how epigenetic drivers contribute to HGSOC and whether these reversible changes can be leveraged to develop urgently needed HGSOC therapies remain to be fully explored.
Epigenetic therapy represents a new frontier in the fight against cancer. For instance, several epigenetic inhibitors have recently entered into clinical trials. Relevant to this application, genes encoding epigenetic regulators are frequently altered in ovarian cancer. The current application focuses on several key epigenetic drivers in HGSOC such as BRD4, PRMT4, and Integrator complex.

The immunological microenvironment plays a key role in cancer. Indeed, a promising approach in ovarian cancer immunotherapy is the transferring of engineered tumor killing T cells. However, the approach is limited by suppressive factors in the tumor microenvironment which limit the effector function of the transferred tumor killing T cells. This application will also address whether targeting an epigenetic regulator FOXO1 can enhance the activity of the transferred T cells. Several epigenetic inhibitors investigated in the current proposal can boost either survival or tumor killing activity of transferred T cells. This raises the possibility of combining epigenetic therapy with engineered T cell based immunotherapy to eradicate ovarian cancer.
The overall goal of this application is to develop novel epigenetics-based approaches to combat ovarian cancer through better understanding how key epigenetic regulators contribute to the disease. To achieve this goal, we have assembled a group of outstanding investigators from The Wistar Institute with complimentary expertise in ovarian cancer, tumor immunology, and transcriptional regulation. The current application builds on the existing Ovarian Cancer Affinity Group at The Wistar Institute. The multi-disciplinary team has a strong track record in collaborative ovarian cancer research as evidenced by 15 co-authored ovarian cancer research articles.

In the immediate short-term, the proposed studies will provide fundamental mechanistic insights into the role of epigenetic drivers in ovarian cancer. In the long-term, they will lay the critical foundation for developing epigenetic-based intervention strategies for eradicating ovarian cancer. Notably, several of the epigenetic inhibitors examined here are ready for clinical trials. If successful, these newly developed approaches would be immediately translatable. A grant from the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance will allow the team to strengthen the preliminary data and integration required to submit a competitive NIH/NCI program project grant.


Rugang Zhang, Ph.D., is deputy director of The Wistar Institute Cancer Center and professor and co-leader of the Gene Expression & Regulation Program at The Wistar Institute. It is the nation’s first independent research institution devoted solely to biomedical science and a world leader in cancer, immunology, virology, and infectious disease research.

Rugang joined Wistar in 2012 and is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rugang serves as a scientific reviewer for ovarian cancer-focused granting agencies, including National Institutes of Health/NCI study sections and the Department of Defense (DoD) Ovarian Cancer Research Program. Rugang was the recipient of the Liz Tilberis Early Career Award from the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, the DoD Ovarian Cancer Academy Award and the Inaugural Liz Tilberis Prize for Excellence in Ovarian Cancer Research from the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance. Rugang currently serves as principal investigator or project leader on many national peer reviewed grants and is a collaborator on multiple other national grants.

Rugang studies the biology of epithelial ovarian cancer, the most lethal gynecological malignancy in the developed world, to define novel targeted and combination therapeutic strategies. In particular, the Zhang Lab elucidated the role of epigenetic regulators in ovarian cancer and antitumor immunity in order to develop urgently needed epigenetics-based new therapies.