3 HMS Scientists Receive Prestigious Allen Awards

Researchers recognized for achievements in neuroimmunology, systems biology and cancer

Gu, Kirschner, Weinstock

From left: Chenghua Gu, Marc Kirschner and David Weinstock

Three Harvard Medical School scientists have received the prestigious Allen Distinguished Investigator awards for their work in the fields of neuroimmunology, developmental biology and cancer.

The awardees, neurobiologist Chenghua Gu, systems biologist Marc Kirschner and cancer researcher David Weinstock, will each receive $1.5 million in research support over three years. Weinstock will share his award with biological engineer Scott Manalis of MIT.

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The awards, conferred by the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, support research that aims to bring new clarity to knowledge of the biology of human aging.

Gu, professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, receives the award in recognition of her pioneering work studying the brain vasculature in relation to neuroimmunology, an emerging field that explores the intersection of the nervous and immune systems. Her work has yielded valuable insights into our fundamental understanding of the unique features of the brain vasculature including the blood brain barrier, which provides a safe and homeostatic brain environment that is essential for proper neural function. This award will extend Gu’s investigations into how vascular cells receive and transmit signals between the body’s immune system and the brain.

Kirschner, the John Franklin Enders University Professor of Systems Biology and founding head of the Harvard Medical School Department of Systems Biology, is being recognized for his mold-breaking approaches to studying how cells divide, live and die. His research takes a large-picture, systematic approach to understanding the biology of early development and aging, the two processes that bookend the lives of all living creatures. Although development and aging are usually studied in separate scientific disciplines, Kirschner integrates them. Using the water flea as a model organism, Kirschner employs systems biology and machine learning approaches to uncover how cellular circuitry drives both development and aging and where they might overlap. This award will support his continuing efforts to advance understanding of embryonic development and aging.

Weinstock, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and attending physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, studies the molecular origins of cancer and how cells repair their damaged DNA. Weinstock and collaborator, Manilis, are receiving the award for their work into the mechanisms that fuel drug-resistance and propel recurrence in a class of cancers known as lymphomas, which affect various white blood cells. The team’s ultimate quest is to understand why some people with lymphoma are cured while others relapse and to identify ways to prevent the return of the disease. To do so, Weinstock and Manilis will start out by studying the handful of residual lymphoma cells that linger on even after patients go into remission and aim to define what renders these leftover cells resistant to treatment.

The Allen Distinguished Investigator program began in 2010 to fund early-stage research that is less likely to receive support from traditional funding sources but has the potential to significantly advance understanding of biology. The latest round of awards brings the total number of awards to 69.