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April 9, 2001
MEDIA CONTACT : Marjorie Centofanti
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E-MAIL: mcentofanti@jhmi.edu

Hopkins' Young Investigators' Day Winners Shine In The Spotlight

"When I was a medical student in China, I noticed a leukemia patient listening to his small radio every morning when we did rounds. One day, his roommate died. The next morning, the young man, with his radio in his hand, asked me, ‘Do you know why I am always listening? I wish one morning, when I wake up, the radio will tell me somebody found the cure. Then I won’t have to worry that one morning soon I won’t wake up at all.’ I felt so powerless at that moment; I realized the only people who could keep his hopes alive are the scientists."        Jun Xia, Young Investigators’ Day winner

"I can go to the lab every morning and, to a great extent, have autonomy over which intellectual and experimental path I want to follow. It stuns me that I get paid to do this."     Mike Hemann, Young Investigators’ Day winner

Winners of the Johns Hopkins Young Investigators’ awards cite different reasons for becoming scientists, but have in common a knack for elegant research, a keen discipline to see it through and an unusual ability to communicate what they’re doing.

For the past 23 years, The Hopkins School of Medicine has sponsored Young Investigators’ Day, a sophisticated science fair for grown-ups, recognizing promising pre- and postdoctoral investigators in the School of Medicine well before most of them could tap sources of acclaim open to more established scientists.

This year, Young Investigators’ Day is Thursday, April 12, with an awards ceremony from 4 p.m. to 6p.m. in the Mountcastle Auditorium of the Preclinical Teaching Building on the East Baltimore campus.

Winners of the 14 awards typically go on to head their own labs at Hopkins or other high-rank research institutions. Their work is often seminal, both in basic science and in the "translational" research that becomes therapy. A technique developed by Hai Yan, M.D., Ph.D., winner of this year’s Daniel Nathans Award, for example, sidesteps a major problem in screening for human genetic disease. It lets researchers ignore the confounding presence of normal gene copies, doubling the sensitivity of everyday genetic testing.

"If this year’s group of winners indicates the quality of young researchers in general, science will be in very good shape in the decades ahead," says Professor of Medicine Theresa Shapiro, M.D., Ph.D., who chaired this year’s awards review committee.

The 21 winners mirror science’s international appeal: They come from Egypt, China, Italy, Viet Nam and India as well as the United States. Their interests outside the lab are richly varied. Jian Yu has held Chinese New Year parties for 500 of her homesick countrymen. Matthew Wallenfang teaches part time at a Baltimore inner city high school. Alessandra Boletta is an avid mountaineer and skier. Tarek Fahmy, a former chemical engineer, writes music based on translating cell protein sequences/interactions into notes. "My goal is to be able to translate a receptor ligand interaction into a romantic musical concerto."

Winners of the Michael A. Shanoff Research Award, the longest-standing of the honors, were Gregory J. Gatto, Jr. and Jian Yu. Gatto did molecular detective work to clarify how proteins are carried to a cell’s digestive organelles called peroxisomes. He’s focused on the 3D structure of a receptor in a cell’s cytoplasm, called PEX5, that acts as a sort of card reader for enzymes and other proteins, recognizing them and leading them to peroxisomes where they do their work. Gatto’s study, published in last December’s Nature Structural Biology, takes a key step in explaining how human peroxisomal diseases — long a medical mystery — can occur.

Yu’s work centers on showing how p53, a gene familiar to cancer researchers, plays its major role in keeping malignancy at bay. Scientists have recently found that in diseased cells far along on the road to ruin, p53 triggers apoptosis, or self-destruction. By rigging a model cell system in which p53 is expressed, Yu has found an important gene that’s probably p53's direct intermediary for the destruct message. Scientists may one day use her find to trigger apoptosis in tumors or to block tissue death in other diseases.

This year marks the creation of two new prizes, the Ivor and Colette Royston Awards. Ivor Royston, a Hopkins medical school alumnus, is a successful oncologist/entrepreneur, co-founder of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in San Diego, Calif. The predoctoral award went to Gregory Cost and the postdoctoral to William Roberts, M.D. Cost has discovered how the mobile sections of DNA called transposons — roughly a third of the human genome — are able to reproduce. Roberts has developed a statistical model that predicts who’s most at risk to have cancer recur following prostate removal. His model will improve studies that show how chemotherapy or other adjuncts affect surgery’s long-term outcome.

Venkatesh L. Murthy has won the Hans J. Prochaska Award for his methods to identify the rules that govern folding of RNA molecules. His mentor, biophysicist George Rose, Ph.D., says, "I expect Venk’s contributions to change the course of his field."

Donna E. Hansel distinguished herself as first author on a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience while a Johns Hopkins undergrad. Now she shares a David I. Macht Award for her work showing that an agent called neuropeptide Y regulates the proliferation of nerve cells in olfactory areas of the nose. Her work has applications to the behavior of neural stem cells throughout the body.

Jianwu Bai, also a David I.. Macht winner, has studied genes that may control the invasive character of cancer cells. One gene she’s studied sheds light on the ability of steroids to trigger such invasive behavior. Her work could help develop drugs to thwart metastasis.

These other young scientists have won awards:

The Mette Strand Research Award goes to Michael T. Hemann for work focusing on how telomeres — the structures that protect the ends of chromosomes — can lose their function and how that loss affects cells. His work gives insight into tumor cell formation.

Christopher B. Buck has won the Alicia Showalter Reynolds Award. Buck has found that a particular HIV gene, called gag, directs cells to form HIV’s structural proteins through an unusual process. "Having such an atypical mechanism," he says, "might make a useful target for drugs to suppress the virus."

The Martin and Carol Macht Award was given to Tarek M. Fahmy for his work in explaining how the immune system’s T cells become exquisitely sensitive to infected or otherwise abnormal tissues. Fahmy has found a possible relation between cholesterol and other molecules in receptors on the T cells and the T cells’ level of sensitivity.

The Paul Ehrlich Awards have gone to five winners:

Timothy Chan – has disrupted genes associated with the cell cycle, observing how that alters the action of other genes, such as p53, associated with cell survival.

Frederick C. Nucifora – has helped uncover how abnormal huntingtin, the errant protein in Huntington’s disease, pulls a molecule that’s necessary for cell survival away from its site of action on a cell’s DNA. In short, he’s contributed to understanding what goes awry molecularly in the disease.

Matthew R. Wallenfang – has studied early embryo development in the worm model, C. elegans. Specifically, he’s shown that sperm entry into an egg triggers formation of microtubules in the embryo that, in turn, direct the rearrangement into a definite head and tail end of the developing animal.

Clifford R. Weiss – has shown the potential for magnetic resonance imaging in pinpointing the sort of arterial inflammation associated with atherosclerosis. His work could form a basis for tracking vessel disease therapies or for diagnosing arterial disease.

Jun Xia – has worked on ways the body controls the number of neurotransmitter receptors at synapses. He’s identified a protein that binds to glutamate receptors in the brain, changing them and strengthening their ability to communicate with other neurons— a key part of learning and memory.

The Helen B. Taussig Award was won by Ronald A. Li, Ph.D. Li has studied gated sodium channels that permit rapid transmission of electrical impulses in the heart and other excitable tissues. He’s used mutation-causing chemicals and a deadly toxin from sea snails to alter channel structure and provide insights into its function. The work should help design specific drugs for epilepsy or heart arrythmias, he says, as well as develop biosensors for environmental toxins.

Alessandra Boletta, Ph.D., was awarded the Alfred Blalock Award for studies clarifying what goes awry after inheriting a mutant gene for inherited polycystic kidney disease. She’s developed a model, using the gene’s resulting mutant protein, that captures key features of the disease. She’s also mapped many of the biochemical steps along the way.

The W. Barry Wood Jr. Award has gone to Antonella Riccio, M.D., Ph.D., who has shown that a receptor on nerve cell axons gets activated by nerve growth factor (ngf) before ngf’s message to preserve cells can travel to its target site in the nucleus.

An interest in health care policy has won Hoangmai Pham, M.D., the A. McGehee Harvey Award. Pham found that high quality health care plans were less likely to withdraw from Medicare than lower performance plans, contradicting claims made by some health plan officials.

 The Albert L. Leninger Award goes to Hong-Sheng Li, Ph.D., who mapped biochemical steps on the way to assemble calcium-permeable cation channels in brain neurons. He’s also described where the channels exist in the mammalian brain and explained their role in nerve cell development and learning.

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