Ken Lau named 2023 Stanley Cohen Innovation Fund Awardee

By Aaron Conley

Ken Lau (Vanderbilt University)

Ken Lau, professor of cell and developmental biology, has been selected to receive a one-year research award from the Stanley Cohen Innovation Fund. The award will support groundbreaking and paradigm-shifting research in single cell genomics. This work will propel Vanderbilt forward as a leader in the field by leveraging novel technology to develop customized sequencing-based assays of cell-associated components at the single-cell resolution.

Established through philanthropy in 2019 and named after the late Nobel laureate Stanley Cohen, emeritus professor of biochemistry, the Cohen fund annually supports innovative early-phase research projects that are high risk yet potentially high reward. These awards honor Cohen’s curiosity-driven seminal discoveries in growth factor signaling, which laid the groundwork for our understanding of embryonic and cancer development and led to the invention of numerous anticancer drugs that are still used today.

Lau received his Ph.D. in 2008 in bioinformatics and proteomics from the University of Toronto. He then went on to postdoctoral fellowships at both MIT and Harvard under the tutelage of Kevin Haigis and Douglas Lauffenburger prior to joining Vanderbilt as an assistant professor in 2013. Lau said that his “research applies systems biology approaches to study tissue function as determined by the sum of its interacting parts.” His laboratory focuses on new molecular technologies for cellular profiling and data science approaches to derive biological insights from big data generated by cutting-edge experimental platforms.

Through this approach, Lau, who is also a member of the Vanderbilt Epithelial Biology Center, has made significant discoveries in inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer, work supported in part by an award from the Cancer Moonshot program to help map colorectal cancer tumor progression. Two recent publications, “Differential pre-malignant programs and microenvironment chart distinct paths to malignancy in human colorectal polyps” and “Human Colon Cancer-Derived Clostridioides difficile Strains Drive Colonic Tumorigenesis in Mice,” published in Cell and Cancer Discovery, respectively, have advanced the field. Lau also publicly publishes his software and protocols for single-cell analysis, which benefits other researchers nationally and internationally.

Lau has received a Damon Runyon Research Fellowship, an Innovator Award from the American Association of Cancer Research, support from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and was named a Chancellor Faculty Fellow by Vanderbilt in 2020 for his innovative research and mentorship, among other awards.

Impact of 2022 Cohen Innovation Fund Award: Emily Hodges

Emily Hodges (Vanderbilt University)

Emily Hodges, assistant professor of biochemistry and member of the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, received the Cohen Innovation Award in 2022. Her work aims to understand how DNA methylation, an epigenetic modification, regulates genome function to drive cellular differentiation processes.

Dysfunctional DNA methylation can have a massive impact on cell function and on the ability of the cells to differentiate into specific cell types during development, ultimately leading to developmental defects and diseases like cancer. Despite this, exactly how it regulates these processes has been elusive.

Here is Hodges on recent results stemming from the Cohen award-funded project: “[Recent results] challenge the dogma that DNA methylation is transcriptionally repressive or that changes in DNA methylation dictate initial gene expression changes required for cell fate specification. Instead, our findings argue that DNA methylation dynamics are distinct from other gene regulatory mechanisms and that loss of methylation at a distinct subset of gene enhancers serves as a critical switch [that reinforces and records] a cell’s developmental history.”

This work has led to two manuscripts including one recently published, “Cross-tissue patterns of DNA hypomethylation reveal genetically distinct histories of cell development.” Hodges’ work is key to further understanding DNA methylation, its impact, and how it could potentially be targeted therapeutically.