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UNC Lineberger’s Gary Johnson, PhD, was honored with the 2017-2018 Hyman L. Battle Distinguished Cancer Research Award.
UNC Lineberger Director H. Shelton Earp, MD, spoke at a reception held in honor of Gary Johnson, PhD.

The UNC School of Medicine presented Gary Johnson, PhD, with the 2017-2018 Hyman L. Battle Distinguished Cancer Research Award to recognize his outstanding achievements in cancer research, mentorship, leadership and innovation.

Johnson is a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Pharmacology, and co-director of UNC Lineberger’s Molecular Therapeutics Program. During his 13-year tenure as chair, the Department of Pharmacology rose in national prominence and rankings.

He has been an extensive mentor to many scientists-in-training, and through his research, he has revealed important findings about the way that cancer signals operate. Notably, he developed a method of showing how signals, called kinases, rewire themselves in response to cancer drugs — creating a roadmap of resistance that has important implications for drug development.

In a reception held in Johnson’s honor, UNC Lineberger’s Blossom Damania, PhD, Boshamer Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology and the vice dean for research in the UNC School of Medicine, said Johnson has brought “tremendous” expertise and prestige to the UNC School of Medicine and beyond. Damania said Johnson has been an exceptional leader in cancer biology, achieving not only research excellence, but also mentoring cancer researchers, faculty, fellows and students and developing new technologies. This all speaks to Johnson being not just a “great scientist, but a great person,” Damania said.

UNC Lineberger Director H. Shelton Earp, MD, said Johnson has had an “amazing impact on science at UNC,” he has kept a focus on the translation of basic findings into clinical research, and he brought the pharmacology department to new heights.

“Few at UNC have had the kind of impact on cancer research that Gary Johnson has guided and developed,” wrote Albert S. Baldwin, PhD, associate director of basic science research at UNC Lineberger, and Lisa A. Carey, MD, physician-in-chief of the N.C. Cancer Hospital, in their recommendation letter in support of Johnson’s nomination for the award. “This leadership and innovation has been sustained and is ongoing with new directions and new grant funding.”

The Battle Foundation of Rocky Mount founded the Hyman L. Battle Distinguished Cancer Research Award in 2007 to recognize sustained, exceptional cancer research over a career by faculty at the UNC School of Medicine. Hyman L. Battle established The Battle Foundation in 1946. His grandfather, Kemp Plummer Battle, was an early president of UNC-Chapel Hill, and both Kemp and Hyman were deeply interested in education.

Johnson graduated magna cum laude from California State University, Northridge, in 1971, and earned his doctorate in pharmacology from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in 1976. He worked as an assistant professor in physiological science from Brown University, as an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, and then as a professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. He joined the UNC School of Medicine as a professor and chair in the Department of Pharmacology in 2003.

He has trained more than 50 postdoctoral and 23 doctoral students, many of whom have gone on to hold leadership roles in academia and in the pharmaceutical industry.

Among his many notable research achievements is a study published in the journal Cell that demonstrated how kinases, a cellular signal, overcome MEK/ERK inhibitors to promote drug resistance and allow the cancer cells to continue their abnormal growth.

UNC Lineberger’s Charles M. Perou, PhD, the May Goldman Shaw Distinguished Professor of Molecular Oncology, said that Johnson’s work toward understanding kinases “is making us rethink combinatorial therapies, where his lab is leading the way towards new treatment paradigms.”

At the reception, Johnson shared his gratitude for the work of his lab team and administrators in the Department of Pharmacology and at UNC Lineberger, and he thanked UNC Lineberger leaders for the award, adding that it’s important to recognize cancer researchers because scientific research is a lifelong commitment that’s fun, “but it’s also hard.” Johnson said he’s witnessed the rise of science at UNC and proudly noted the “commitment of the scientific community, the faculty, has been second to none.” The collaborative spirit and the vision of the institution make this place “a top cancer center,” Johnson said.

“We’re doing something right because both the director of the NIH and the director of the NCI trained here,” Johnson said.