May 27, 2008

Salk scientists selected as Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators


Salk News

Salk scientists selected as Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators


La Jolla, CA – Salk scientists Samuel L. Pfaff and Andrew Dillin have been selected as Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigators, HHMI announced today. Both join a prestigious group of the nation’s top biomedical researchers who share the coveted title given to science’s most innovative minds.

As new HHMI investigators, Pfaff, a professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory, and Dillin, an associate professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, will be supported for the next five years and encouraged to explore their most creative scientific ideas in their respective fields.

Their appointment raises the number of HHMI investigators conducting research at the Salk Institute to seven.

“Both Sam and Andy are highly deserving of this recognition, which is reserved for a select group of extraordinary scientists,” said Salk Interim President and Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin. “Their recent discoveries and innovative approach to their respective areas of research amply justify their election as Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators.”

Pfaff’s laboratory is interested in embryonic development of the spinal cord, specifically he focuses on investigating how motor neurons form and make their predetermined connections between the spinal cord and the muscles in the body. These connections are necessary for all body movements. Disruption of motor neuron function is typically at the center of paralysis due to spinal cord injury or disease.

Under his HHMI appointment, Pfaff will explore a neuronal network in mice that controls rhythmic movement of the hind limbs. The network, called a central pattern generator (CPG), resides in the lower spinal cord and controls gait.

For nearly a century, scientists have known about this network and its relation to limb movement, but little has been understood about the identity and function of the cells in the circuit or the mechanisms responsible for their wiring.

Pfaff’s research of the CPG will provide fundamental insights into how vertebrate locomotion is achieved and could one day translate into new treatments for people with spinal cord injuries or disease.

Dillin’s lab 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 Dillin discovered how the insulin pathway controls aging without disrupting other physiological processes.

His lab recently made two important discoveries related to his studies in aging. First, he identified a gene that plays a key role in increasing the life span of mice and other animals kept on extreme calorie-restricted diets.

His lab also discovered the mechanisms that clear away toxic proteins in young healthy brains, mechanisms that, Dillin found, break down with age and lead to protein aggregate build-up, the hallmark of age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.

Dillin has suggested that the main cause of aging and age-related diseases is our brains’ inability to manage the protein clumps. His lab will continue to work on understanding the aggregate-clearing mechanisms and look for additional cellular pathways with similar protective effects to find clues that may one day help patients with neurodegenerative disease.

“These 56 scientists will bring new and innovative ways of thinking about biology to the HHMI community,” said HHMI President Thomas R. Cech, speaking of the group of researchers elected in the most recent round of appointments. “They are poised to advance scientific knowledge dramatically in the coming years, and we are committed to providing them with the freedom and flexibility to do so.”

About the Salk Institute:

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.

About HHMI:

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a non-profit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation’s largest philanthropies, plays a powerful role in advancing biomedical research and science education in the United States. In the past two decades HHMI has made investments of more than $8.3 billion for the support, training, and education of the nation’s most creative and promising scientists.

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