Friday, April 22, 2011

Celebrating prize-winning MGH research

The presentation of the MGH's top research prizes was a highlight of the April 13 Celebration of Science, held in conjunction with the annual Scientific Advisory Committee meeting. The Joseph B. Martin Awards for the best 2010 basic and clinical research papers went to Vamsi Mootha, MD, of the Department of Medicine and the Center for Human Genetic Research (CHGR), and to a team led by Eunice Kwak, MD, PhD, Jeffrey Clark, MD - both of the MGH Cancer Center - and A. John Iafrate, MD, PhD, of the Department of Pathology. The Howard Goodman Fellowship, awarded to a young investigator with demonstrated leadership potential, was given to Sekar Kathiresan, MD, of the MGH Heart Center. Each of the team leaders spoke about their studies at the event.

Award-winning researchers: From left, Kwak, Kathiresan, Mootha and Perocchi

The Martin Awards are named for the former dean of Harvard Medical School and previous chief of MGH Neurology. This year's basic research award honors a paper in the Sept. 16 Nature describing the discovery of a protein that plays an essential role in transporting calcium into mitochondria, tiny cellular structures that provide much of the energy required for biological processes. While it has been known that mitochondria can store excess cellular calcium, an important signalling molecule, exactly how calcium is transported across mitochondrial membranes has been unknown. Mootha's team - with lead author Fabiana Perocchi, PhD, of the CHGR - pursued a novel strategy to identify the first mitochondrial gene that regulates calcium uptake.

The clinical Martin Award recognized a paper by Kwak's team in the Oct. 28 New England Journal of Medicine, describing how a new targeted drug halts or reverses the growth of lung cancers driven by mutations in a gene called ALK. Although most phase 1 clinical trials involve administering new drugs to a broad range of patients to test for toxicity and investigate how the medication works, this study also enrolled a subgroup of patients known to have ALK mutations. Kwak described how many such patients exhibited a powerful response to the tested drug and how the results of the trial moved this drug into a large-scale phase 3 trial in record time.

Kathiresan has led several major studies that identified gene variants associated with the risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases. In October his team announced finding genetic mutations in a family with extremely low levels of triglycerides and both types of cholesterol, a discovery that suggests a completely new mechanism for regulating lipid levels. The Goodman Award, named for the founder of the MGH Department of Molecular Biology, will support further investigation of the activity of this gene and its potential as a therapeutic target.

Talks by the award-winning researchers were preceded by the annual poster session, where more than 240 teams presented displays describing their investigations, 10 of which were named posters of distinction. In addition, students from the James P. Timilty Middle School, East Boston High School, the Boston Engineering School and the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers displayed posters of their projects. The day concluded with the keynote address by Joseph Goldstein, MD, SAC chair and Nobel Prize recipient, who described how the interaction of the hormone ghrelin with growth hormone helps organisms survive conditions of starvation.

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