June 29, 2006

Salk Institute researcher named Pew Scholar

Salk News

Salk Institute researcher named Pew Scholar

La Jolla, CA – Satchidananda Panda, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Regulatory Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, has been named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. He is one of only 15 researchers in the country to receive the honor this year. The distinction comes with a $240,000 award provided over four years to support his research on the molecular basis of circadian timekeeping mechanisms in mammals.

Panda’s work focuses on understanding how the day-night cycle determines the optimum time for sleep, appetite and physiology, which could lead to new therapies for circadian rhythm-related disorders such as depression, jet lag and sleep disorders.

He recently discovered a novel photoreceptor called melanopsin that measures the color and intensity of light in our eye and instructs a biological clock in the brain to appropriately adjust to the natural light-dark cycle. This process helps us readjust our biological clock during a shift in work schedules, jet travel, and seasonal change in day length.

Although light sensitive as well, melanopsin is different from rod and cone opsins, its biological cousins in the retina that help us see. Melanopsin is present only in a few hundred specialized cells, but they have a direct link to the brain. They send electrical messages in response to changing lighting conditions and are preserved in many blind patients. He hopes to one day impart at least partial vision to blind individuals with the help of gene therapy that introduces re-engineered photoreceptors to cells in the retina.

Most recently, Panda’s research team concentrated its efforts on understanding how this new sensor detects light and converts the information to a chemical signal that travels to deep regions of the brain.

A native of India, Panda received his doctorate in Macromolecular, Cellular, and Structural Chemistry from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, He was recruited to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies after completing his post-doctoral studies at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in San Diego, California.

The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides crucial support to investigators in the early stages of their career who show outstanding promise in the basic and clinical sciences. The program is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to the University of California, San Francisco. Since its inception, the Pew Charitable Trusts has invested more than $100 million to support approximately 400 scholars. Panda is the 13th Salk Institute researcher to be named a Pew Scholar since the awards were launched in 1985.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to fundamental discoveries in the life sciences, the improvement of human health and the training of future generations of researchers. Jonas Salk, M.D., whose polio vaccine all but eradicated the crippling disease poliomyelitis in 1955, opened the Institute in 1965 with a gift of land from the City of San Diego and the financial support of the March of Dimes.

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