Martin Kast, PhD, of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and his students Joseph Skeate and Andrew Woodham, PhD, earned top prize in the 2015 BeHEARD Rare Disease Science Challenge from the Rare Genomics Institute.

The prize, provided by Cypher Genomics and valued at $100,000, will allow the Kast Lab to push forward in its research into genetic variations that result in uncontrolled infection and proliferation of warts caused by the human papillomavirus within Indonesian “Treemen.”

In 2009, Kast first met individuals with the illness, which handicaps them with massive tree bark-like outgrowths. Kast believes that the Treemen have a genetic variation that prevents their immune systems from mounting a proper attack against HPV infections.

With only a few reported cases worldwide, funding for study has been scarce. The prize will allow the Kast Lab to sequence the genomes of the three Treemen and compare them to other healthy Indonesians from the region, potentially solving the mystery of why their immune systems cannot eliminate the virus.