Valerie Press,MD & Justin Kline,MD – Recipients of Leif B. Sorensen,MD,PhD Research Award

The  Department of Medicine awarded the 2020 Leif B. Sorensen,MD,PhD Faculty Research Award to two rising stars: Dr. Justin Kline, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Section of Hematology/Oncology, and Dr. Valerie Press, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Section of General Internal Medicine. The recipients were announced on September 15, 2020 at a virtual Departmental awards ceremony.

Dr. Press is a highly accomplished clinical researcher who is developing a national reputation as an expert in patient and system level interventions for improving the care for patients with obstructive lung disease across care transitions. Her academic efforts span from research and scholarship to clinical care and quality improvement to education and mentorship. Her mission of improving the lives of patients living with asthma and COPD is realized through providing excellent direct clinical care, directing clinical programs that raise the bar for the quality of care delivered, and developing, testing, and implementing interventions to improve this care. Dr. Press is a recent recipient on an NIH R01 focused on innovative and rigorous implementation science methods to identify real-world solutions to decreasing COPD acute care revisits by concurrently studying care transition program intervention delivery methods (virtual versus in-person) and mentored implementation approaches (virtual or in-person).

Dr. Kline is an innovative clinical translational scientist who has made, and continues to make, major contributions to the understanding of hematologic malignancies .Dr. Kline’s research efforts are focused on understanding the immune environment of hematologic malignancies, initially in leukemia but now solely focused on lymphoma. Specifically, his work is dedicated to understanding mechanisms of immune evasion in order to develop strategies to overcome them therapeutically. This effort comes at a time of dramatic progress in the immunotherapy of cancer, and Dr. Kline has been at the forefront of applying these new treatments to hematologic malignancies. One of the first successes for Dr. Kline was the discovery that the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway was responsible for immune dysfunction in mouse leukemia models (i.e., avoidance of immune destruction by leukemia cells), and that blockade of those pathways could improve leukemia-specific survival; this led to the initiation of ongoing clinical trials testing this concept in patients. He further described an additional pathway of immune evasion in these animal models mediated by dendritic cells, which could inactivate leukemia-specific T cells. The latter was a key finding, because it distinguished the mechanism of immune evasion in leukemia from that of solid tumors. This pathway was the subject of Dr. Kline’s R01 grant, in which he found that a specific subset of dendritic cells was involved in this pathway. The discovery that dendritic cells regulate host tolerance of leukemia has led to investigation of novel therapeutic approaches in hematologic malignancies such as the use of a stimulator of interferon genes agonist (STING) which has a major therapeutic effect in animal models.

The award is given annually in honor of  Dr. Sorensen who served in the Department of Medicine for over 40 years, most recently as vice chair from 1976-1999, and interim chair in 1997-1998. In 2007, the Department established this award in his honor to recognize outstanding basic and translation research by an advanced junior or mid career faculty member.
Past winners ( last 5 years) include: Yu-Ying He (2015), Esra Tasali (2016), Monica Peek (2017), Yun Fang, PhD(2018) , Megan Huisingh- Scheetz & Neda Laiteerapong, MD (2019).