Jason Howard, 32, posed a question to Johns Hopkins University students and doctors on Wednesday.
"So how are we doing in the war against cancer?" he asked those gathered for the second annual Rangos Award for Creativity in Cancer Discovery presentations.
Howard, a Catonsville resident and postdoctoral fellow in the head and neck cancer therapeutics program at Hopkins, proposed creating a vaccine using proteins from tumors to teach the immune system to fight the disease — and the idea won him $25,000.
Hopkins held an awards ceremony on Wednesday for the Rangos competition, which recognizes innovative solutions in treating metastatic cancer — cancer that has spread from its original location in the body. Five finalists — narrowed down from 55 applications from undergraduates, medical students, residents and fellows — presented their ideas to an audience of about 75 and a panel of judges, who decided the winner on the spot.
Because metastatic cancer starts in one part of the body and spreads to others, the National Cancer Institute does have a method of tracking how many people die from it each year. But Theodore DeWeese, faculty sponsor for the competition, said, to date, it's essentially uncurable, which is why the competition focuses on treating it.
The program is funded by John G. Rangos Sr., who heads a foundation that has donated to Hopkins. He said he chose to start a competition because he thought young scientists were an underused resource, and he wanted to offer them a challenge.
"I think it's a key to getting a dreaded disease that's affected every family in the world," he said.
Other ideas centered on personalizing cancer treatment and studying gene sequencing.
In second place was Ashwin Ram, 27 a resident in radiation oncology; in third place was postdoctoral fellow Hogan Tang, 32; in fourth place was Sylvie Stacy, 27, a resident in general preventive medicine; and in fifth place was postdoctoral fellow Xiaochuan Yang, 27.
The finalists received $12,500, $6,250, $3,150 and $1,500, respectively. They may use the prize money for whatever they choose, DeWeese said.
After being announced as the winner, Howard said everything included in his proposal was feasible, but it was also theoretical, so it was up to someone to take his idea and make it a reality.
But he found it fascinating to see how five different people came up with solutions to treating cancer.
"To me, it was heartening," he said.