The two second-year medical students are among 69 students from around the nation selected to participate in the medical fellows program, which is designed to increase the number of professionals who apply science in the service of medicine. It is part of a larger effort by the Hughes Institute to integrate basic research with clinical experience.
"What's important about these awards is that they underscore our commitment to provide research opportunities to our students here," said Ann Bonham, executive associate dean for academic affairs at UC Davis School of Medicine. "I'm delighted that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has recognized these two students for their talent and enthusiasm for research in addition to their passion for helping patients. They will be excellent physician scientists, with the ability to translate their research from the laboratory to the patient's bedside."
Yu, a graduate of UC Berkeley, is already familiar with basic research. As an undergraduate, he conducted scientific investigations related to both ophthalmology and public health, and also interned with a biotech firm. Yu has continued his laboratory work at UC Davis with another physician-scientist and will work on creating a mouse model of corneal neurogeneration. His Howard Hughes medical fellowship allows him to spend the coming year in the UC Davis Department of Ophthalmology, where he'll explore the mechanisms that allow the eye to regenerate nerves after injury, infection or surgery.
"I'm excited about this research because having a better understanding of how the eye heals may lead to new therapies that can prevent blindness," said Yu.
Kim, who graduated from UC Berkeley with highest distinction, will be investigating problems related to corneal angiogenesis, a debilitating condition that occurs after an eye injury or infection when blood vessels form in the cornea during the healing process. Normally, the cornea does not contain any blood vessels. But if it is injured in any manner, blood vessel growth is triggered as the cornea heals, which can have significant impact on vision including, in extreme cases, blindness. The problem accounts for an estimated 2 million cases of blindness worldwide.
"Gene therapy is an exciting area of research," said Kim, "because it carries such promise for the treatment of many different disorders, ranging from corneal angiogenesis to diabetes and cancer. Understanding the mechanisms of gene therapy, as well as its potential benefits and shortcomings, offers the potential for developing a safe, reliable, and efficient therapeutic option for preventing problems within the cornea that can happen during recovery from eye injuries and disease."
Both students will be working under faculty mentor, Mark Rosenblatt, an assistant professor of ophthalmology who specializes in the treatment of patients with corneal and external diseases, as well those who need refractive surgery.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute student research awards are given out on an annual basis. They support both a scholars program at the National Institutes of Health and mentored, full-time research at institutions around the nation. For the 2007 competition, the institute received applications from more than 300 medical and dental students. Awardees will share nearly $4 million in support from the institute.
UC Davis Health System is an integrated, academic health system encompassing UC Davis School of Medicine, the 577-bed acute-care hospital and clinical services of UC Davis Medical Center, and the 800-member physician group known as UC Davis Medical Group.