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Philanthropy drives Cohen Innovation Fund

Back to Vestigo Issue 3

By Sarah Wolf

At first glance, it may be difficult to find links among peanut allergies, memory research, and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a rare inherited condition. But peering into the discovery research within the Vanderbilt School of Medicine Basic Sciences reveals one—each of these topics has received support from the Stanley Cohen Innovation Fund, an initiative supporting high-risk, high-reward research.

Established through philanthropy in 2019 and named after the late Nobel laureate Stanley Cohen, emeritus professor of biochemistry, the Cohen fund supports innovative research in perpetuity. Cohen’s seminal discoveries in growth factor signaling laid the groundwork for our understanding of embryonic and cancer development and led to the development of numerous anticancer drugs that are still used today.

Over the past several years, the Cohen fund has been a fundraising priority, with gifts from donors and institutional dollars bolstering the effort. Thanks to this support, the Cohen fund is now primed to enable discovery work—innovative, early-phase proposals that are too risky to succeed through standard funding mechanisms—with the aim of advancing scientific understanding and helping researchers generate preliminary data to land larger grants.

Black and white photo of Stanley Cohen from the shoulders up. He's wearing a white, collared shirt and a tie and is mid-speech.
Stanley Cohen. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.

“We’ve arrived at a moment of celebration,” says Larry Marnett, dean of basic sciences. “The Cohen fund has reached our initial goal, thanks to contributions from donors and matching institutional investment. This model of co-investment—where donors and departments come together—is propelling some very exciting work here.”

James McKanna, emeritus professor of anatomy, and cell and developmental biology, was a friend, collaborator, and mentee of Cohen. Together they conducted electron microscopy studies that showed that EGF, the growth factor Cohen discovered, bound to receptors on the surface of cells and activated further signaling.

McKanna was among the dozens of donors who responded to the matching opportunity in support of the Cohen fund. “I am delighted that Stanley’s spirit has a continuing presence on campus through this fund,” McKanna said. “Stanley loved to discover something unusual and then pursue it with a great deal of enthusiasm and imagination. I hope the recipients of this fund will carry on his perspectives as a scientist, including his pragmatic approach to whittling down big problems into directed questions, and his genuine ability to lead, guide, and mentor.”

As an endowment, the Cohen fund will support one compelling research project each year, chosen through a competitive selection process. Last year, the faculty selection committee evaluated 10 proposals.

Cody Siciliano, assistant professor of pharmacology, was selected to receive the Cohen fund award last year to support studies on the neural substrates of memory. Siciliano’s work focuses on understanding how neural circuits in the brain orchestrate decision-making and memory, how these processes can become dysregulated due to trauma or disease, and how regulation of these circuits can be restored through various interventions.

“The Cohen fund has allowed me to think outside of the lab’s usual direction and take risks on ambitious research questions. This has enabled us to quickly make progress on developing new tools and answering long-standing biological questions,” Siciliano said.

“I’m thrilled that we’ve gotten the Cohen Innovation Fund to a level where we can support high-risk research in perpetuity,” said Marnett. “The projects we’ve funded in our first few years offer a tantalizing look into the exciting research we will fund in the future. This is the most appropriate way I can think of to honor the legacy of our colleague Stanley Cohen.”