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‘Enzyme Whisperer’ Named a Finalist for First-Ever National Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists - 05/21/2014

‘Enzyme Whisperer’ Named a Finalist for First-Ever National Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists

Release Date: May 21, 2014
Sinisa Urban
Sinisa Urban, Ph.D.
Keith Weller, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Sinisa Urban, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute early career scientist and an associate professor of molecular biology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has been named one of 10 finalists for a new national award for young researchers in the life sciences. The honor recognizes Urban’s work uncovering the mechanism of action for a notoriously difficult-to-study class of enzymes that are important to the functioning of an array of organisms, from bacteria to humans. If chosen, Urban will receive an unrestricted cash prize of $250,000, the largest of its kind for young faculty.

“Sin’s research is absolutely cutting-edge. He has pioneered new areas of biology and is extremely rigorous in his approach,” says Carol Greider, Ph.D., professor and director of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. “It is wonderful to see him honored as a top young scientist; his work deserves this recognition.”

The Blavatnik Family Foundation was begun by billionaire Len Blavatnik, an American industrialist, business leader and philanthropist. For the first time, this year the foundation will give a $250,000 nation-wide award to a faculty-ranked scientist, 42 years of age or younger, in each of three disciplines: the life sciences, physical sciences and engineering, and chemistry. While the Nobel Prize and other recently created large awards like the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, are usually given to well-established scientists who are late in their careers, the Blavatnik awards seek to provide recognition and financial support to outstanding scientists early in their careers when they need it the most. Candidates will be judged on the rigor of their research, its impact and novelty, and their potential for making additional, groundbreaking contributions in their fields.

Born in Croatia and raised in Canada, Urban received his Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Cambridge, U.K., where he discovered the function of an unusual class of enzymes. So-called rhomboid proteases have been hard to study because they are embedded in the oily membranes of cells, instead of in their watery centers. Like other proteases, rhomboid proteases cut proteins, but they have a novel architecture and a unique mechanism, cutting unstable proteins that come their way, instead of only cutting proteins with a specific sequence. These insights, and the technical innovations required to gain them, have changed the way scientists understand membrane-embedded enzymes. They could also lead to improved treatments for a wide variety of diseases, from malaria to Parkinson’s disease.

As a finalist, Urban will be honored at a symposium and dinner reception at the New York Academy of Sciences on July 8, 2014. The final winners will be chosen in July, and the awards will be conferred during a formal ceremony on September 15, 2014, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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