Professor Ashok Venkitaraman
Ashok Venkitaraman, formerly the Ursula Zoellner Professor of Cancer Research at the University of Cambridge from 1998-2020 and Director of the MRC Cancer Cell Unit from 2006-19, relocated in 2020 to new roles in Singapore. He is now a Distinguished Professor of Medicine at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and directs the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore, a Research Centre of Excellence hosted by NUS. Ashok leads the NUS Centre for Cancer Research, and is a Programme Director at A*STAR in Singapore. Ashok previously co-led the Cambridge Pancreatic Cancer Programme with Duncan Jodrell.
Ashok trained in clinical medicine before his Ph.D. in immunology and postdoctoral work in molecular cell biology. Ashok’s first faculty position was at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where he remained before election to the Zoellner Professorship in 1998, after which he became the Director of the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge.
Ashok’s research has advanced our understanding of how genes that maintain the integrity of the human genome suppress cancer development. His laboratory was amongst the first to discover the essential functions of the breast cancer gene, BRCA2, in preserving genome integrity, and to elucidate how inactivating mutations in BRCA2 cause human cancer susceptibility. Ashok’s work has also extended the reach of chemical biology and therapeutics development for cancer. His laboratory has developed new genetic technologies to screen complex biological pathways for ‘druggable’ therapeutic targets, and applied structure-guided approaches to develop lead compounds against previously undruggable molecular interactions. This work has led to serial Cambridge University spin-out companies, including PhoreMost Ltd., which is successfully working with pharma partners to accelerate drug discovery.
Ashok’s research continues in his Singapore laboratories, where he aspires to understand the mechanisms underlying human cancer susceptibility, and find innovative ways to intercept cancer early in its evolution.
Ashok’s Cambridge laboratory developed novel transgenic models to elucidate the genomic evolution of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma associated with germline or somatic mutations affecting BRCA2 and PALB2 over time and space, to identify new genetic determinants of progression and prognosis, and to develop new approaches for small-molecule therapy. Ashok previously worked with Dr David Tuveson to help establish the pancreatic cancer pre-clinical therapeutics testing facility in Cambridge employing ultrasound imaging for pre-clinical therapeutic trials, and with Professor Duncan Jodrell to study cellular mechanisms underlying new clinical trial designs for targeted anti-mitotic therapies, and the development of new biomarkers for therapeutic responsiveness.
Ashok was elected to the Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences, London in 2001, and to membership of the EMBO European academy in 2004.
He co-supervises a PhD student based in the laboratory of Dr. Tim Halim at the CRUK Cambridge Institute, funded by the Pancreatic Cancer UK Ellis Future Leaders’ Academy, Cambridge grant.