Two Johns Hopkins scientists named to National Cancer Advisory Board

Ashi Weeraratna, Nilo Azad among seven researchers selected to advise National Cancer Institute director on activities of the national cancer program

Two leading Johns Hopkins cancer researchers—Ashani Weeraratna, who specializes in melanoma and the effects of aging on cancer, and Nilofer Azad, whose research focuses on developing new drug combinations for patients with advanced cancer—have been appointed by President Joe Biden to serve as a member of the National Cancer Advisory Board. The White House announced the appointment on Wednesday.

Ashani Weeraratna and Nilofer Azad

Image caption: Ashani Weeraratna and Nilofer Azad

Cancer remains a leading cause of death worldwide despite progress in prevention, early detection, and treatment. The National Cancer Advisory Board advises and assists the director of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health on the activities of the national cancer program. Individuals are selected from among leading representatives in health and science, along with leaders in public policy, law, health policy, economics, management, and the environment. Among its activities, the National Cancer Advisory Board reviews grant applications for research, training, health care information, and programs for cancer patients and their families.

Weeraratna is the E.V. McCollum Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, co-leader of the Cancer Invasion and Metastasis Program at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, and a professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2019.

Weeraratna's research focuses on the effects of the tumor microenvironment—the normal cells and structures surrounding a tumor—on metastasis and therapy resistance. She is one of the first researchers to study how the aging microenvironment influences metastasis and therapy resistance in melanoma. Her studies encompass biophysical changes that affect the ability of both tumor and immune cells to migrate through tissues. Her research has found age-related differences in responses to both targeted therapy and immunotherapy, findings that may one day inform clinical practice.

"I am honored and humbled to be named to the National Cancer Advisory Board," Weeraratna said. "As a young girl in Lesotho, Southern Africa, many years ago, I could not imagine having such an opportunity. I am grateful to those who have mentored me, the students I now get to mentor, and every single person living with cancer. I am so excited to work with my colleagues on the National Cancer Advisory Board as we support the mission of the National Cancer Institute."

Azad is a professor of oncology in the School of Medicine and directs the Developmental Therapeutics Clinical Trials Program for the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, where she has been a member of the faculty since 2008. Her clinical expertise is in cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, with a concentration in colorectal cancer and cancer in the pancreas and bile ducts. Her laboratory and clinical trials explore epigenetic therapy in combination with chemotherapy and immunotherapy to improve survival for patients.

"It is such an honor to be named to the NCAB, in particular by President Biden, who has a true commitment to the cause of eradicating cancer," Azad said. "This is a real opportunity to move the needle meaningfully to improve outcomes for our cancer patients, and I feel very fortunate to be asked to serve."