May 6, 2010

Salk scientist named 2010 Rita Allen Scholar

Salk News

Salk scientist named 2010 Rita Allen Scholar

LA JOLLA, CA–Dr. Ye Zheng, an assistant professor in the Nomis Laboratories for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, has been named a 2010 Rita Allen Scholar, the Rita Allen Foundation announced today. He will receive $500,000 over a five-year period to study how regulatory T cells prevent the immune system from attacking the body’s own tissue and causing autoimmune disease.

“A significant part of our mission is to promote the common good through the work of our Scholars,” said Elizabeth G. Christopherson, President and CEO of the Rita Allen Foundation. “The Scholars Program concentrates on bio-medical research and advancing understanding of the human condition. We have a storied history of embracing innovative research with above average risk and groundbreaking possibilities, and are proud of the over 100 Scholars, including a Nobel Laureate, who have received our financial assistance.”

According to Christopherson, Scholars are nominated by premier institutions and then are selected by the Rita Allen Foundation Scientific Advisory Committee and ratified by the organization’s Board of Directors. “Anyone aware of the caliber of the members serving on our Scientific Advisory Committee and Board of Directors knows the vetting process for Scholars is a rigorous one,” Christopherson said. Out of 40 applicants reviewed this year only seven were designated Rita Allen Scholars.

About the project

The immune system is often described as a kind of military unit, a defense network that guards the body from intruders. Seen in this way, a group of white blood cells called T cells are the frontline soldiers of immune defense. The majority of T cells engage invading pathogens head on, while a smaller subset, called regulatory T cells, limit excessive immune reactions. Autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis occur when the balance of power between the two breaks down.

Regulatory T cells are controlled by a pivotal gene regulator called Foxp3. In fact, when Foxp3 stops functioning, the body can no longer produce working regulatory T cells. Using a genome-wide screen, Zheng mapped all genes directly regulated by Foxp3 and identified a small group of transcription factors–proteins that control the expression or “transcription” of genes–that drive the expression of genes involved in regulatory T cell function. One of them, IRF4, stood out as the key player in regulatory T cells’ ability to control type-2 T helper cells, which, if uncontrolled, can activate other immune cells and lead to allergy and asthma.

Zhang will use the support from the Rita Allen Foundation to generate an autoimmune mouse model that will him allow to dissect the cellular and molecular mechanisms of regulatory T cell mediated suppression of the Th2 immune response. His experiments not only will provide a better understanding of regulatory T cells but will suggest new therapeutic approaches for treating a wide range of autoimmune diseases, improving organ transplant survival, and boosting the immune systems response to tumors.

About Ye Zheng
Born in Shanghai and raised in Beijing, Zheng earned his bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Peking University in Beijing, China, and his doctorate in Biological Sciences from Columbia University in New York. After completing a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Washington in Seattle and a brief sojourn as a research scholar at Memorial Sloan Kettering, he was recruited to the Salk Institute in La Jolla in 2009.

About the Rita Allen Foundation
The Rita Allen Foundation, established in 1953, was a modest sized foundation until Rita Allen Cassel died in 1969 and left a substantial portion of her estate to the foundation. She directed that most of these funds be used to advance medical research. It was from these beginnings, that the foundation established the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program which has supported more than one hundred scientists over the last thirty years. Many of these scholars have made important advances in medical research.

Additional Information about the Rita Allen Foundation is available at

About the Salk Institute
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 both on discovery and on mentoring future generations of researchers, Salk scientists make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, aging, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and infectious diseases 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.

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