2021 Sherman Prize Recipient

Judy H. Cho, MD

Dean and Ward-Coleman Professor of Translational Genetics; Director, Charles Bronfman Institute for Personalised Medicine; Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY

A pioneer in IBD genetics research, advancing our understanding of the underlying causes of IBD and paving the way for personalized treatment approaches.

Dr. Judy H. Cho has always loved science – an affinity that may be part of her own genetic code, inherited from parents who devoted their careers to physics and nursing. About her calling to medicine she says, “When you combine a physicist and a nurse, of course you get a doctor!”

From a young age, Dr. Cho’s mother and father nurtured her scientific pursuits. In high school, she volunteered at a local hospital and that experience started to set her trajectory for the future.

“I remember seeing my first case of IBD in a teenager who was dealing with many difficult symptoms from a draining perianal fistula,” recalls Dr. Cho. “I was struck by the fact that no one understood what was driving this young patient’s symptoms.”

“I wanted to understand the pathophysiology of these diseases. It was this mystery that set me on the path I’m on today.”

Dr. Cho’s curiosity and relentless drive to find answers has put her at the forefront of IBD genetics research. She has contributed to virtually every major discovery in the field over the past 20 years. Dr. Cho was one of the leaders of the team that identified the first gene for Crohn’s disease, NOD2, and, later, the involvement of IL-23 in the disease cascade, which helped to accelerate the development of therapies targeting the IL-23 pathway. Now, these anti-IL-23 therapies are widely used to treat Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Dr. Cho’s tenacious pursuit to uncover pieces of the genetic code behind IBD has provided important insights into therapeutic targets and helped to seed drug development to give patients new treatment options.

Today, Dr. Cho is exploring how to prioritize new targets and tailor biologic agents for individual patients. She is also studying whether combination therapies can help patients with specific sub-types of IBD achieve deeper, longer lasting remissions. As she strives to push the field forward, she focuses on mentoring her junior colleagues to help ensure this important research continues.

“As a scientific mentor, my hope is that trainees leave the lab as excited and idealistic about research as they were when they entered,” she says.

“As a lifelong ‘IBD-ologist,’ I hope that ongoing and future advances by the field will substantially improve patients’ lives.”

One area of interest for Dr. Cho is continuing to identify genetic and cellular mechanisms of Crohn’s disease. The Cho Lab recently discovered that blocking the common cytokine receptor subunit gp130 may benefit some patients with Crohn’s disease and could complement anti-tumor necrosis factor (TNF) treatment, a standard therapy for moderate to severe cases. This treatment uses medications known as TNF inhibitors to block white blood cells producing the protein TNF, which causes the inflammation.

Dr. Cho and her colleagues are also exploring how mast cells possibly contribute to inflammation in ulcerative colitis. Using single-cell data, these results define cell modules of disease activation and suggest a potential new IBD treatment by blocking mast cell degranulation. Finally, her other research interests include gene therapy for people with the NOD2 mutation and translating this concept into therapeutic options.

“A lot of times when you’re reaching in the dark, the solution suddenly becomes very clear,” says Dr. Cho. “We need to be audacious and think big. With our understanding of the genetic underpinnings of these diseases, I believe cures are possible.”