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Aaron McKenna Named a Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences

Aaron McKenna, PhD. Photo by Kurt Wehde

Aaron McKenna, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular and Systems Biology (MSB) at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, has been selected as a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences by the Pew Charitable Trusts. He is one of only 22 young scientists nationwide awarded this honor in 2021.

The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides funding to young investigators of outstanding promise in science relevant to the advancement of human health. McKenna was selected from among 198 nominations submitted by leading U.S. academic and research institutions to receive four-year grants to invest in exploratory research.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be chosen from a pool of top candidates across the country,” says McKenna. “The Pew scholars program has a long history of promoting excellent science and I’m proud to be part of that legacy.”

“Aaron is an ideal choice for this prestigious award,” says MSB chair Marnie Halpern, PhD. “By capitalizing on his strong background in computational biology, he has devised new and creative ways to understand how cells behave in normally developing tissues and now in cancer.”

A $300,000 award from Pew will allow McKenna to accelerate his efforts to map the genetic evolution of cancer cells as they proliferate and spread, particularly in breast cancer. “To understand when or how cancer cells accumulate the specific mutations that make them resistant to treatment or promote their spread, we need to be able to compare the genomes of individual cells in a tumor as it grows,” he explains.

In his previous work, McKenna developed an approach for labeling cells with a “CRISPR recorder” that enables researchers to trace the lineage of different cell populations as the tumor grows. Now, using advanced methods in molecular genetics, cancer genomics, software development, and single-cell sequencing, his lab will refine this recording technique and map the evolution of cancer cells as they form tumors and metastasize in mice.

“Our improved technologies will be used to characterize tumor evolution during treatment, mapping the source of drug-resistant cells in patients,” says McKenna. “We hope this work will help pinpoint vulnerable timepoints or cell populations in the tumor, ultimately leading to improved clinical outcomes and enhanced patient survival.”

McKenna joins more than 1,000 other scientists who have received awards from Pew since 1985. The 2021 scholars include scientists who are exploring the link between cell death and inflammation, how regulatory RNAs influence embryonic development, and how animals select specific types of food for their changing nutritional needs. Current scholars have opportunities to meet annually, share ongoing research, and exchange perspectives across the health sciences field.

“Pew has a history of supporting talented researchers who are committed to understanding intricate scientific processes,” says Susan K. Urahn, Pew’s president and CEO. “Our newest cohort of scholars is joining a large community of accomplished scientists who are dedicated to uncovering new solutions to significant biomedical challenges.”

McKenna earned his doctorate in genomics from the University of Washington in 2017, remaining there as a postdoctoral fellow until 2019, when he joined the faculty of Geisel in the Department of Molecular and Systems Biology.

Founded in 1797, the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth strives to improve the lives of the communities it serves through excellence in learning, discovery, and healing. The Geisel School of Medicine is renowned for its leadership in medical education, healthcare policy and delivery science, biomedical research, global health, and in creating innovations that improve lives worldwide. As one of America’s leading medical schools, Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine is committed to training new generations of diverse leaders who will help solve our most vexing challenges in healthcare.