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Five Top Scientists To Receive DeBakey Research Awards

June 7, 2011

Five distinguished Baylor College of Medicine scientists will receive the annual Michael E. DeBakey, M.D., Excellence in Research Awards Tuesday.

The scientists will present their research and receive their awards in a special program from 2 to 4 p.m. in Alkek N315.

These awards recognize significant and outstanding research accomplishments by scientists at BCM. The recipients present their work during a seminar at which they receive Excellence in Research medallions. The awards also include unrestricted funds to support their research programs.

The awards are funded by the DeBakey Medical Foundation. Dr. Michael E. DeBakey was a world renowned surgeon and scientist and the first president of Baylor College of Medicine. He died in 2008.

The winners include:

Dr. Malcolm Brenner, director of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital and The Methodist Hospital and professor of pediatrics and medicine ““ hematology-oncology. Brenner has developed a method that not only targets the killing power of immune system T-cells against specific antigens or proteins found on tumors, but also insures that the levels of these T-cells remain high long enough to be effective. To do this, in a series of elegant experiments, he has combined the specially developed T-cells with CARs ““ chimeric antigen receptors ““ that bind to specific proteins on tumors cells and trigger the killing potential of the T-cells. In a recent experiment, he and his colleagues extended the life of this construct by adding a special stimulatory molecule that increases the numbers of T-cells and their tumor-fighting potential. His methodology has the promise not only to kill tumors cell but also will translate well into actual treatment in the clinic.

Dr. Jue D. (Jade) Wang, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics. Wang’s work focuses in part on the ways in which two cellular processes ““ the replication and transcription of DNA ““ can interfere with one another and how that conflict is resolved. Replication is the process by which a strand of DNA is copied during cell proliferation (growth and division) and transcription is the process by which the message in the DNA is translated into messenger RNA and ultimately the proteins that are workhorses of the cell. The key to this is DksA, which can alleviate the conflicts between the two processes.

Dr. Adam Kuspa, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and vice president for research at BCM, and Dr. Gad Shaulsky, professor of molecular and human genetics, are two-time recipients. They previously received the award in 2005. Their work extends earlier work on the evolution of the soil amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum and relates it to the field of social evolution. In times of starvation, the stressed single “Dicty” cells merge into a multicellular organism made up of a stalk (that is not living and does not pass on genes) and spores that are living and pass on genes. In most cases, the contributions to stalk and spore are in proportion to the populations of Dicty cells that form these organisms. However, Shaulsky and Kuspa found that the genetic possibility of “cheating” in the system is great and is not associated with developmental defects. “Cheaters” are less likely to contribute to the stalk of the multicellular organism and, thus, more likely pass on their genes in greater percentages than would be expected of the population of Dicty cells as a whole. The cheaters do not overwhelm the population, however, because there are “cheater-resistant” mutants that can even protect some strains of the organisms from those that cheat.
In a third finding, the pair discovered that Dicty cells have a form of immune system that can help them discriminate “self” from “nonself,” segregating different strains of the organisms as kin and non-kin.

Dr. Margaret A. Goodell, director of the Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine Center and professor in the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, pediatrics, molecular and human genetics and pathology & immunology, is also a two-time recipient, having won the DeBakey award previously in 2004. She has shown that hematopoietic stem cells (blood system cells) are an integral part of the immune system’s response to infection. In an article in the journal Nature, she showed that these stem cells are stimulated by interferon-gamma to increase their own reproduction so that they can produce immune system cells that are needed to fight the TB organism Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In a second article in Cell Stem Cell, she and her colleagues showed that not all hematopoietic stem cells are equal and that there are subtypes of these cells that give rise to different kinds of blood cells. She identified the subtype myeloid that gives rise to red blood cells, macrophages (white blood cells that engulf foreign invaders in the blood stream) and lymphoid that gives rise to the body’s immune system. This finding has implications for treatment, indicating that those who would use stem cells in treatment might be more effective if they seek these different subtypes rather than looking for “pure” stem cells.

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