Awards & Recognitions: February 2019

Honors received by HMS faculty, staff and students

david reich
David Reich

David Reich, professor of genetics in the HMS Blavatnik Institute, was named with Svante Pääbo, director of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, as winners of the 2019 Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences. The award honors research that challenges accepted thinking in the biomedical sciences by opening new fields of research or advancing concepts in a particular biomedical discipline. They will receive an award and deliver an honorary lecture at The Rockefeller University in April.

Reich and Pääbo are being honored for their studies of ancient human DNA, which reveal the origin, ancestry and migration of contemporary humans.

Reich’s work focuses on ancient DNA’s potential to shed light on biology and has established the central role of population mixture in our species. His lab has produced more than half of the world’s published ancient genomes. His team’s analyses have proved interbreeding between archaic and modern humans and revealed previously unknown information about migration and population turnovers, and he is working to make ancient DNA technology accessible to all scholars.

Po-Ru Loh

Po-Ru LohHMS assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was among126 U.S.and Canadian researchers selected as recipients of the 2019 Sloan Research Fellowships, which honor early-career scholars whose achievements mark them as among the most promising researchers in their fields. The fellowships are awarded in eight scientific and technical fields—chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics.

Loh was elected in the field of computational and evolutionary molecular biology and will receive a two-year, $70,000 fellowship in flexible research support.

mcneil and d'amore
From left: Barbara McNeil and Patricia D'Amore

Four faculty and staff members were honored with the 2018 Exceptional Institutional Service Awards to HMS/HSDM, which recognize exemplary contributions in service to Harvard Medical School or Harvard School of Dental Medicine. The honorees have set the standard for service at HMS/HSDM through their personal initiative in providing service and engaging others to do the same. Such service often goes unrecognized and unheralded.

The two faculty members who received the 2018 Barbara J. McNeil Faculty Award for Exceptional Service are:

Patricia D’Amore, the HMS Charles L. Schepens Professor of Ophthalmology at Schepens Eye Research Institute at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, vice chair for basic and translational research at HMS, HMS professor of pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and co-director of the Harvard Ophthalmology Age-Related Macular Degeneration Center of Excellence

cunningham and kiarsis
From left: Patricia Cunningham and Sara Kiarsis

Paul Russell, the HMS John Homans Distinguished Professor of Surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital

The two staff members who received the 2018 Daniel D. Federman Staff Award for Exceptional Service are:

Patricia Cunningham, academic program manager for the Irving M. London Society of the
Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology

Sara Kiarsis, director of academic and clinical Affairs at HMS

David Walt
David Walt

David Walt, the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering and HMS professor of pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was among 19 individuals named to the 2019 Class of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The inductees will be honored at a celebration in Washington, D.C., in May.

Walt created microwell arrays that could analyze thousands of genes simultaneously, revolutionizing the field of genetic analysis. His technology accelerated the understanding of numerous human diseases and is now being used in diagnosis. It has also made DNA sequencing more affordable and accessible.

Maya Babu, HMS member of the faculty of neurosurgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, is one of 60 scholars who will form the fifth annual class of Presidential Leadership Scholars. The program brings together a network of leaders, who are selected based on their leadership growth potential and their personal leadership projects aimed at improving civic engagement or social good by addressing a problem or need in their community, the country or the world. The scholars will learn from former presidents, former administration officials, business and civic leaders and leading academics.

amit choudhary
Amit Choudhary

Amit Choudhary, HMS assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was named as one of three winners of the 2019 Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science, which are awarded to young foreign-born biomedical scientists who demonstrate outstanding early achievement. The prizewinners will be honored at a gala in New York in spring 2019.

Choudhary’s research lies at the intersection of physics, biology and chemistry. He identified a fundamental force integral to the structures of biomolecules like proteins and nucleic acids, opening up potential for new modes of drug design and delivery, as well as insight into molecules tied to the origin of life. He refined controls for the genome-editing enzyme CRISPR-Cas9 to minimize unintended effects, increasing its potential for treating genetic disorders and curbing vector-borne diseases. His research on binge-eating snakes led to insights on insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells, suggesting possible therapeutic approaches for human diabetes. Choudhary is also a faculty member of the Division of Renal Medicine at Brigham and Women’s and an associate member of Broad Institute.

Six HMS researchers from the Blavtnik Institute at Harvard Medical School and the School’s affiliated hospitals were named among 18 new Damon Runyon Fellows by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. The recipients of this four-year award are outstanding postdoctoral scientists conducting basic and translational cancer research in the laboratories of leading senior investigators across the country. The fellowship provides independent funding to work on innovative projects.

Additionally, Justin Sparks, research fellow in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology, was named one of six new recipients of the Damon Runyon-Dale F. Frey Award for Breakthrough Scientists. This award provides additional funding to scientists completing a Damon Runyon Fellowship Award who are most likely to make breakthroughs that transform the way cancer is prevented, diagnosed and treated.

Sparks is investigating the cellular machinery that carries out DNA replication and how this process can go awry in cancer cells. Specifically, he is focusing on the eukaryotic replisome, which is a complex of enzymes that helps cellular DNA replicate during cell division. He has found that the replisome can overcome bulky obstacles on a DNA strand, such as DNA-protein cross-links (DPCs), during replication to maintain genome integrity. DPCs, generated from cellular metabolites and environmental mutagens, are likely important for cancer etiology. Faulty DNA replication and repair are hallmarks of all cancers. Thus, his research has the potential to uncover new drug targets that can prevent genome instability and the evolution of cancers leading to therapeutic resistance.

The six November 2018 Damon Runyon Fellows from HMS are:

Amelia Chang, research fellow in neurobiology, with sponsor Michael Greenberg, the Nathan Marsh Pusey Professor of Neurobiology, is investigating the role of activity-regulated gene expression in human brain evolution. Activity-regulated pathways control critical brain functions and modulate tumor growth in multiple cancers. These pathways are broadly conserved across all mammals, but newer studies have identified features that are unique to primates and may influence important aspects of brain function and tumor progression. Chang will study the function, regulation, and evolution of primate-specific genes. Through these experiments, she aims to uncover molecular insight into what makes humans susceptible to cancer.

Yuan Gao, research associate-HHMI in cell biology, with sponsor Tom Rapoport, professor of cell biology, aims to understand the mechanism that proteins inside the cell use to enter peroxisomes. Peroxisomes are organelles that play important roles in fatty acid degradation, ether-phospholipid biosynthesis and breakdown of hydrogen peroxide. Mutations in genes that cause faulty peroxisome function, particularly those that affect matrix protein import, result in a variety of severe inherited human diseases referred to as peroxisome biogenesis disorders. Cancer cell lines also strongly depend on peroxisomes for survival, which suggests that pharmacologic targeting of peroxisomes could be a novel cancer therapy. Gao is using a combination of biochemical and biophysical approaches to investigate the peroxisomal import machinery with the goal of deciphering its mechanism and developing better cancer therapies.

Aaron Moye, HMS research fellow in genetics at Boston Children’s Hospital, with sponsor Carla Kim, professor of genetics at Boston Children’s, is studying early-stage lung cancer. Specifically, Moye is investigating the cell-to-cell cross talk between lung cancer cells and their surrounding microenvironment and how this cellular communication promotes early-stage lung cancer initiation and progression. Moye aims to discover secreted factors that can be used in diagnosis and to identify new targets for drug development that interfere with the lung cancer microenvironment.

Jonathan Van Vranken, research fellow in cell biology, with sponsor Steven Gygi, professor of cell biology, is focusing on the metabolic alterations associated with human cancers. In order to support normal physiology, all cells must obtain nutrients from the environment and allocate them toward both the production of energy and synthesis of cellular building blocks. Cancer cells often reprogram their metabolism to support the uncontrolled growth associated with tumors. Van Vranken is using mass spectrometry-based approaches to investigate the mechanisms underlying the changes in cellular metabolism. His research will shed light on how metabolites interact with the proteome (all the proteins in a cell) to support cell growth and proliferation.

Jingyi Wu, HMS research fellow in pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, with sponsor Bradley Bernstein, HMS professor of pathology at Mass General, is studying the epigenetic profile of glioma brain tumors at single cell resolution. Epigenetic alterations, which change gene expression without any changes to the underlying DNA sequence, can affect cancer driver genes in many tumor types, including gliomas. Unlike genetic mutations, epigenetic alterations are often reversible and are promising drug targets. Wu aims to determine whether there are various subpopulations of cells with distinct epigenetic features within a tumor and whether the epigenetic differences endow these subpopulations with distinct properties, such as propensity for growth or drug resistance. These studies will lay the groundwork for precision treatment strategies targeting the fast-growing and drug-resistant cells within gliomas, and potentially other tumor types.

Ge Zheng, HMS research fellow in pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital, with her sponsor Stuart Orkin, the David G. Nathan Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics at Boston Children’s, is taking an interdisciplinary approach to understand how transcription factors that regulate the transcription of DNA to RNA malfunction in human cancers. The B cell lymphoma/leukemia 11A (BCL11A) gene encodes a zinc-finger transcription factor, which plays a critical role in silencing fetal globin expression in the fetal-to-adult switch in red blood cells and is implicated in cancer. Zheng aims to develop novel approaches to interfere with BCL11A function, which will provide a general strategy to manipulate transcription factors as molecular targets for therapeutic benefit.

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