Two faculty members from the University of California, Davis, are among 12 scientists selected to receive Individual Biomedical Research Awards from The Hartwell Foundation this year. The awards provide $100,000 of direct support each per year for three years, as well as videoconferencing equipment for periodic communications with the foundation and other award recipients. The foundation is also funding a UC Davis Hartwell Foundation postdoctoral researcher with $50,000 per year over two years.
The awardees are: Frederic Chedin, associate professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, College of Biological Sciences; Noriko Satake M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics in the UC Davis School of Medicine and Comprehensive Cancer Center; and Paula Goines, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Molecular Biosciences in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
In 2011, The Hartwell Foundation designated UC Davis as one of its Top Ten Centers for Biomedical Research. Including Chedin and Satake, the foundation has made Individual Biomedical Research Awards to five UC Davis scientists and engineers since 2009.
The prestigious designation in 2012 also meant that UC Davis received a Hartwell Fellowship to fund one postdoctoral researcher, chosen by the university, who exemplifies the values of the foundation. The fellowship award is intended to support scientists in the early stages of biomedical research careers by enabling them to pursue further specialized training. Goines is the first fellowship recipient from UC Davis.
"The foundation is impressed with the manner in which UC Davis has embraced the Hartwell process to inspire innovation and achievement. UC Davis' leadership exceeded our expectations by their collegial participation to identify outstanding proposals from interested faculty and win two awards this year," said Fred Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation.
Chedin will use the funds to explore a novel approach to understanding a common autoimmune disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, in which the body's immune system attacks itself, including making antibodies against DNA.
At any time, most of our DNA is "silenced" or switched off by a chemical modification, except at a few specific sites, called CG islands, which serve as "on" switches for our genes. Chedin's lab has been studying how these CG islands are protected from silencing; he thinks that too little silencing might play a role in the development of systemic lupus.
He will test his hypothesis by using as a model system the severe but rare autoimmune disorder called Aicardi-Goutières syndrome, which mimics early onset lupus. The syndrome affects infants, and in most cases leads to death by age 10 to 15. Understanding the biological mechanisms that underlie Aicardi-Goutières will generate critical insights into how the innate immune system can be triggered. If Chedin is successful, his efforts will lead to the development of new diagnostic tests and therapies for children affected with early onset lupus and related autoimmune diseases.
Satake is working to develop a new method to treat childhood leukemia, called molecular targeting. The approach is different from conventional chemotherapy drugs, which kill healthy blood cells and leukemic cells equally. Satake proposes to develop a unique method to deliver a type of molecule that interferes with gene expression, called siRNA. She seeks to deliver it specifically to the leukemia cells, but not to normal healthy cells. If she is successful, her narrow-target approach could prove a transformative pediatric cancer treatment.
Satake explained that while considerable gains have been made in curing pediatric cancers, there are still lethal forms of the disease that resist treatment.
"Even when we cure the cancer, many of those patients are known to have significant long-term side effects or late effects derived from radiation and chemotherapy that can cause heart failure, osteoporosis, learning disabilities and even secondary cancer," she said. "Unfortunately, those are irreversible. The new targeted therapy to be developed will not only be more effective in treating cancers but also have fewer side effects to normal cells than current therapies."
Goines is a recent Ph.D. graduate from UC Davis. She will work with Pamela Lein, professor of neurotoxicology in the Department of Molecular Biosciences, on a new approach to studying autism by looking at nerve cells grown from adult stem cells present in the hair follicles of patients.
In the Hartwell competition, all nominees submit a detailed research proposal, are personally interviewed and make a formal presentation of their proposed research. In selecting awardees, The Hartwell Foundation takes into account the nature of the proposed innovation, the extent to which a strategic or translational approach might promote rapid clinical application of research results, the supportive role and extent of collaboration in the proposed research, the institutional commitment to provide encouragement and technical support to the investigator, and the extent to which funding the investigator will make a difference.
For more than 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has more than 32,000 students, more than 2,500 faculty and more than 21,000 staff, an annual research budget that exceeds $684 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges -- Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools -- Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.