Columbia Biomedical Faculty Receive HHMI Early Career Scientist Grants
Two Columbia faculty have received prestigious new appointments from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in recognition of their contributions to biomedical research.
Eric Greene, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at the Columbia University Medical Center and Brent Stockwell, Ph.D., an associate professor in the departments of biological sciences and chemistry, were named to the inaugural class of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Early Career Scientists.
The purpose of these awards is to allow each scientist the freedom to explore his or her best ideas without financial concerns about how to fund those experiments. HHMI's investment of approximately $200 million will allow 50 researchers to concentrate on making discoveries in the laboratory and training the next generation of scientists.
As part of the award, over the next six years HHMI will pay Drs. Greene and Stockwells’ salaries and benefits, provide each with a research budget of $1.5 million and cover other critical expenses, including lab space and equipment purchases. Greene and Stockwell are among 50 honorees chosen from a field of more than 2,000.
Greene calls himself a “visual biochemist.” Unlike many scientists who use test tubes to study the way molecules interact, he has devised a method of peering at these interactions in real-time through a microscope. Specifically, he studies how individual protein molecules interact with single molecules of DNA, a process that may shed light on the onset of cancer.
“Many cancers are thought to arise from the inability of protein to repair DNA correctly,” Greene said. “We study how proteins find sites on DNA, how they respond to those sites and how they interact with each other.”
The HHMI appointment will be a major boon to his program, he said. “The freedom it provides is a big, big thing, and it will let us attract the best people to the lab, the best people to get the job done.”
Stockwell’s mission is to understand how cells die. This work relates, in opposing ways, to two of life’s most dreaded diagnoses: cancer and Huntington’s Disease. Tumors take root and multiply because they develop resistance to the body’s mechanism for killing aberrant cells, while neurons afflicted with the Huntington’s mutation perish for reasons that remain elusive.
“There are two sides to my research,” said Stockwell. “There’s the basic research side: Can we understand the different ways that cells die and the molecular mechanisms that underlie those processes? And then there’s the applied side: to use that information to create drug therapies that can target the mechanisms and have an impact on these diseases.”
Stockwell’s lab has identified a compound known as erastin, which selectively kills tumor cells with a specific cancer-promoting gene. He plans to use a share of his new HHMI funding to custom-design and test many more such compounds.
“It gives us the resources to do things that we couldn’t do otherwise,” he said.
For a complete list of the 2009 honorees, visit the HHMI web site.