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Rubenstein Award for Excellence in Resident Research Named

The 2023 Cedars-Sinai Rubenstein Award for Excellence in Resident Research has been awarded to Cecilia Leggett, MD, for her work with point-of-care ultrasound using personal devices; and Anthony Nguyen, MD, PhD, for his cancer research on the tumor microenvironment in triple-negative breast cancer.

The annual award, which includes a $3,000 cash prize, aims to foster basic and clinical research, enrich knowledge, and encourage the development of investigative curiosity in residents from across Cedars-Sinai.

The award honors Paul Rubenstein, MD, Cedars-Sinai’s first director of Medical Education and vice president of professional services, who helped transform the organization from a community hospital into a major academic medical center.

Leggett and Nguyen were two of four finalists who presented their research on May 23 in the Harvey Morse Auditorium to a panel of judges chaired by Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, who received the award over two decades ago. Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS

“It’s always a thrill to come back and introduce our latest and greatest research projects and the amazing four finalists that we’re going to be hearing from today,” said Spiegel, the Dorothy and George Gourrich Chair in Digital Health Ethics and director of Health Services Research at Cedars-Sinai.

The judges recognized Leggett, chief resident in Obstetrics and Gynecology, for her research on ultrasound devices that rely on cellphones and tablets for image display. She is examining whether these pocket-sized devices are reliable clinical tools compared with standard ultrasound technology. Leggett’s findings were published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Leggett and her fellow investigators conducted an observational study of patients who were between 19 and 39 weeks pregnant and presenting for anatomy scans and growth scans. Each participant was assessed by an expert sonographer using a standard ultrasound machine and the personal-device-based ultrasound technology to determine estimated fetal weight.

The results showed there was a near-perfect agreement between the measurements, with an average difference of only 53 grams.

“This study found that personal-device-based ultrasound devices are reliable tools for performing obstetric ultrasound and that they do improve clinical efficiency when caring for patients. The opportunities for future research are pretty vast,” Leggett explained.

“The portability and affordability of these probes can have huge implications for the feasibility of ultrasound-based research endeavors, whether that’s in the hospital setting, in the outpatient setting, or in low-resource or remote international settings. There are also important applications for training education,” she said.

In the other winning presentation, Nguyen, chief resident in Radiation Oncology and an incoming Cedars-Sinai faculty member, discussed patterns of immune resistance to immunotherapy and radiotherapy in triple-negative breast cancer.

“Triple-negative breast cancer is one of the most challenging types of breast cancer to treat and is more common among premenopausal women and Black women,” said Nguyen.

“Although immunotherapy has demonstrated activity in triple-negative breast cancer, it is unclear how to best treat patients who progress on immunotherapy or patients with metastatic disease who are not eligible for treatment,” he explained.

Nguyen and his co-investigators used high-dose radiotherapy to potentially boost the response to immunotherapy in a mouse model of triple-negative breast cancer. Although immunotherapy commonly targets T-cells, Nguyen hypothesized that a different immune cell type was responsible for dampening down any potential interaction with radiation.

“Tumor-associated macrophages are one of the most abundant immune cell types found in breast cancer,” said Nguyen. “Given that macrophages can activate T-cells, we focused our efforts on understanding how macrophages and neutrophils respond to treatment.”

Nguyen and his co-investigators sequenced tens of thousands of individual immune cells from tumors treated with immunotherapy and radiotherapy to identify key cells that suppress the immune response to treatment.

“We found that macrophages and neutrophils are critical mediators of immunosuppression following immunotherapy and radiotherapy,” said Nguyen.

“Our research provides insight into why these combinations have been inconsistent when tested in clinical trials and provides a novel approach to overcoming resistance to combination therapy,” he said. 

Finalists Emily Truong, MD, and Qiudong “Kevin” Chen, MD, also presented their work. Truong discussed how MRI-AST scores—which are based on specific disease criteria—accurately predict major adverse liver outcomes. Chen discussed the outcomes of heart transplants in patients from socioeconomically distressed communities.

The Rubenstein Award is funded by the Burns and Allen Research Institute at Cedars-Sinai and the Cedars-Sinai site of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

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