May 29, 2009
La Jolla, CA—Salk Professor Inder M. Verma, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading authorities on the development and use of engineered viruses for gene therapy, has been named the 2009 recipient of the American Society of Gene Therapy’s Outstanding Achievement Award. The award recognizes an ASGT member who has conducted groundbreaking research or achieved a lifetime of significant scientific contributions to the field of gene therapy. Verma is only the second scientist honored with the society’s Outstanding Achievement Award, which debuted in 2008.
Verma, the American Cancer Society Professor of Molecular Biology in the Salk Institute’s Laboratory of Genetics and holder of the Irwin Mark Jacobs Chair in Exemplary Life Science, pioneered the use of stripped-down versions of viruses, in particular HIV, to ferry intact versions of genes that are defective or missing to cells throughout the body. His innovations revolutionized gene therapy, stem cell and cancer research, and other areas of molecular biology. He will receive the award in San Diego, at the society’s annual meeting May 27-30, 2009.
When Verma and his team conducted the first successful study to use viruses to deliver therapeutic genes into cells in 1983, the news made the front page of the New York Times. The research demonstrated that a genetic disease, in this case, Lesch-Nyhans syndrome, could be corrected in a Petri dish using retroviruses-a family of viruses that can insert themselves into a cell’s genome-as the vector, or delivery vehicle. They went on to use viral vectors to introduce genes into animals, correcting such genetic diseases as hemophilia and severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome (SCID), or “bubble boy disease.” Currently, more than 60 percent of all gene therapy trials worldwide rely on viruses to transport their genetic payload into cells.
Prior to 1996, viruses used as gene delivery vehicles could only infect dividing cells, which left out the vast majority of cells in the body. That year, however, Verma’s group modified the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a member of the retrovirus family, which is capable of infecting nondividing cells, to deliver genes safely and efficiently into a wide variety of cells. Using this new method, they were able to influence a number of diseases in animal models.
The HIV vector his group developed has also become a standard tool in stem cell research, used to convert fibroblast and other cells to create induced pluripotent (iPS) stem cells (adult cells that have been reprogrammed into a stem cell-like state) and to make experimental model systems for research. Most recently, Verma and his Salk colleague Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte received $6.6 million from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine to collaborate on treatments that combine gene therapy and stem cell therapy for Fanconi anemia and SCID, both of which are diseases of the blood that are caused by mutation in a single gene.
About Inder Verma
Verma received a master’s degree from Lucknow University in Uttar Pradesh, India, and his doctorate from The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovoth, Israel. After postdoctoral study at MIT in the laboratory of the Nobel laureate David Baltimore, he joined the faculty of the Salk Institute in 1974, at age 26. For his many outstanding accomplishments, Dr. Verma was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and as a Foreign Fellow to the National Academy of Sciences, India. Verma was also elected to the Third World Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.
Verma was the ASGT’s fourth president and founded the society’s journal, Molecular Therapy, serving as its founding editor-in-chief for five years.
About the American Society of Gene Therapy
The American Society of Gene Therapy is a nonprofit medical and professional organization that represents researchers and scientists devoted to the discovery of new gene therapies. ASGT was established in 1996 by a group of the country’s leading researchers in gene therapy. With more than 2,000 members worldwide, ASGT is the largest association of individuals involved in gene therapeutics.
About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is one of the world’s preeminent basic research institutions, where internationally renowned faculty probe fundamental life science questions in a unique, collaborative, and creative environment. Focused on both discovery and mentoring future generations of researchers, Salk scientists make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, aging, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders by studying neuroscience, genetics, cell and plant biology, and related disciplines.
Faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel Prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1960 by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, M.D., the Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark.