Researchers Samuel L. Pfaff and Andrew Dillin have been selected as new Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigators, the prestigious organization formally announced May 27. Pfaff, a professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory, is interested in discovering how nerve cells form and correctly wire up, focusing on the fetal development of the spinal cord. Of special interest to him is how motor neurons develop and make connections between the spinal cord and muscles in the body, since these connections are necessary for all body movements.
Spinal cord injuries lead to paralysis because motor neuron function is disrupted. Degenerative diseases such as ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), spinal muscle atrophy and post-polio syndrome result from the loss of motor neurons.
Dillin, an associate professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, studies the tiny roundworm Ceanorhabditis elegans to understand the process of aging by looking at the hormone most widely recognized for its role in diabetes: insulin. The insulin-signaling pathway in worms is not only almost identical to that found in humans, but he discovered how the insulin pathway controls aging without disrupting other physiological processes, such as reproduction and development.
Dillin recently identified a gene that specifically links calorie restriction with prolonged life span. A natural extension of his work on aging is to understand the link between the aging process and age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and cancer.