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Catonsville cancer researcher hopes notoriety will aid search to treat and cure cancer

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Last week, Catonsville resident Jason Howard reaped the rewards for his theory on how to treat and cure cancer.

Now he and his co-workers are hoping the notoriety will mean a boost for their cause.

Howard was awarded $25,000 on April 3 from the Rangos Family Foundation for his theoretical proposal to reconfigure the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine in a way that would use the body's own immune system to fight off cancerous cells.

The 32-year-old Massachusetts native was the first place winner of the second annual Johns Hopkins Rangos Awards, which challenge Johns Hopkins Medical School students, physicians and scientists to come up with a creative way to treat and cure metastatic cancer.

"The problem is, when you get a (cancerous) tumor, 99.9 percent is you," Howard said on the fact that most of a cancerous tumor is made up of a body's own cells.

Howard suggested that there might be a way to extract proteins out of a tumor, link them with the HPV vaccine then reinject them into the body so that it would provoke the immune system into attacking the cancerous proteins.

"My proposal was to convert these tumors into something that your body would recognize as not yourself," he said.

Dr. Christine Chung is the director of the Head and Neck Cancer Theraputics Program at Johns Hopkins Cancer Center and Howard's boss in the Department of Oncology at Hopkins.

She said that if a company that owns the patent for the vaccine is willing to cooperate, Howard's idea is definitely feasible for creating a viable cancer treatment.

"He has gotten his award money, that's for himself, that's for Jason," Chung said

"But there's no research funding," she said.

"We're hoping that this Rangos Award will give some credibility to Jason," she said.

She said that if the lab could obtain funding, it would be able to start applying the theory to real-world situations.

"If at some point we can generate enthusiasm ... certainly we would like to inititate the study and start generating some preliminary data," Chung said.

Howard, a postdoctoral fellow in the Head and Neck Therapeutics Program in the oncology department, said he hopes the award will bring attention and funding to his lab in order to make the theory a reality.

"I talked to some of the people who were there (at the award ceremony) and they all thought it was a really feasible idea," Howard said.

"These are the first people who tell you whether it's going to work or not," he said.

He said that, at this point, he would need funding to apply his ideas in a real-life setting.

"If someone thinks it's a good enough idea to invest time and money into, I would certainly be willing to investigate it," Howard said. "It's all possible."

Theoretical challenge reaps real rewards

This is the second year of the Rangos Award competition, which is funded by John G. Rangos Sr., chairman of the Rangos Family Foundation.

Rangos designed the award to generate interest and research about cures for cancer.

"Every family knows someone who has suffered from cancer. Some forms of the disease can be cured even after they have spread, but most are not," Rangos said in a press release.

"The goal of the competition is to inspire original ideas and innovative approaches. When cancer is finally cured, I believe it will be cured by someone at Johns Hopkins," he said.

Howard grew up in North Andover, Mass., and, after completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia, moved to Catonsville eight years ago with his wife, Valerie.

He said he entered the competition last year with a very similar proposal that didn't meet the criteria well enough.

This year, he submitted the same proposal with a few adjustments.

"They said, 'Can you come up with a creative idea to cure metastatic cancer?' and I said to myself, 'Shoot, I did that last year,' " Howard said.

"I feel like I had a better answer this year than I did last year," he said.

Chung said she was very proud of Howard and his proposal.

"Needless to say, Jason is very bright and very creative, and he's also a great communicator," Chung said.

"So it's just very rewarding to see a bright person from your lab get public recognition," she said.

"And I think that as P.I. (principal investigator) of a lab, also as a person who has been a part of his training, it's just very rewarding to see your trainee doing so well," Chung said.

Howard said he will use his winnings to create a college fund for his 2-year-old daughter, Melanie, and his 1-year-old son, Mark.

"I'm going to let the magic of compounded interest work for them for college," Howard said.

"Maybe they can buy a textbook with that," he said.

The other four finalists who were chosen from 54 contestants, also received cash awards.

• Dr. Ashwin Ram, 27, a resident in Radiation Oncology, won $12,500 for second place;

• Hogan Tang, 32, a postdoctoral fellow in Biological Chemistry, won $6,250 for third place;

• Dr. Sylvie Stacy, 27, a resident in General Preventive Medicine, won $3,150 for fourth place;

• Xiaochuan Yang, 27, a postdoctoral fellow in Oncology-Hematologic Malignancies, won $1,500 for fifth place.

This story has been updated.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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