Michael Lai's two worlds came together in one patient last September. Lai, like other students in Hopkins' M.D./Ph.D. program, divides his time between learning to treat patients in the hospital and conducting ongoing laboratory research. Working in a clinic at the start of his third year in medical school, he saw an organ transplant patient who had tremors from the immunosuppressive drug FK506. Lai had been studying the causes of this FK506 side effect at the molecular level in the lab.
"I actually found it quite gratifying to see my two worlds come together in this patient," Lai says. "Seeing the patient made me step back and appreciate the connection at the level of an actual person."
Lai went on to help make another connection back in the lab--he helped identify two proteins in the nervous system that bind to the cellular target of FK506, a breakthrough that may allow scientists to understand and perhaps even block the drug's side effect.
Lai's achievement won him one of the School of Medicine's 13 Young Investigators' Day awards last week. Established in 1978 as a way to recognize creative, elegant research by student investigators in the School of Medicine--well before most of them can tap sources of acclaim open to more established scientists--Young Investigators' Day has become a tradition. Winners of the awards typically go on to head their own labs at Hopkins or others in the nation's premier research institutions. Their work is often seminal, both in basic science and in work that translates into therapy.
"If this year's group of winners is indicative of the quality of young researchers in general, science will be in very good shape in the decades ahead," says Theresa Shapiro, associate professor of pharmacology, who chaired this year's awards review committee.
This was the first year for the Daniel Nathans Research Award, bestowed in honor of the Hopkins Nobel laureate and renowned molecular biologist who died last November. "Dan got enormous satisfaction from fostering the careers of younger scientists," says his son, Hopkins researcher Jeremy Nathans. "The Young Investigator's Day Awards are in that spirit, and it is very nice to have one of the awards named in his memory."
In a coincidental twist, the first winner, Jen-Chih Hsieh, is a postdoctoral student in the younger Nathans' lab.
Hsieh, who will be taking a faculty position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook next year, has followed a family of proteins that cells use to signal each other as an embryo develops. Should the signaling break down, malformed organs such as brains or kidneys are the result. Uncontrolled, these signals become a trigger for cancers such as melanoma or colon cancer. Researchers had long sought receptors for the signaling molecules. Hsieh not only has helped identify the receptors but has shown that inhibiting them can be a way the body fine-tunes organ development.
Other interesting stories, students and research abounded at Young Investigators' Day.
"The best thing that ever happened to me from the perspective of really getting things done in the lab was having our first child," says David Brody, winner of the Hans J. Prochaska Research Award. Acknowledging that the idea may seem just a bit counterintuitive, Brody explains that his new daughter helped increase his motivation and his efficiency.
"Rather than hang around in the lab and try a lot of Ścool' experiments that might or might not work, I became totally focused on my main project," he says. Perhaps also taking some unconscious inspiration from his wife, in the next nine months he finished all his experiments and completed two papers.
Brody's research focused on a process possibly key to the way learning or other information-processing occurs in the nervous system. He's studied how greatly increased activity within a nerve cell could remove a natural block to the release of nerve transmitters, allowing a "message" to cross from one nerve to another in a way that influences learning and memory.
Yasuhiro Morita, one of the winners of this year's Michael A. Shanoff Research Awards, gave one of the evening's more entertaining presentations, including among his slides a picture of a Japanese Sumo wrestler to illustrate the concept "saturated in fat."
Morita found an unusual metabolic pathway in trypanosomes--the organisms that cause sleeping sickness--that lets them produce a fatty acid key to their well-known ability to resist the body's immune defenses. The pathway had eluded more experienced researchers for 30 years. Having such a target, Morita says, could lead to the first truly specific drugs for the disorder. (See story "Researchers Identify Drug Target to Treat Sleeping Sickness" in this issue of The Gazette.)
Morita concluded his presentation by thanking his parents, who had traveled to the ceremony from Japan.
Xian-Zhong Xu, also a Shanoff Award winner, described using fruit flies as a model to study how retinal cells respond to light. He found that, as light enters the eye, certain retinal proteins congregate to form a large protein complex, the "signalplex." By manipulating genes that alter the signalplex structure, Xu can slow cells' ability to sense light. This rearrangement of proteins--or their failure to rearrange--could help explain what goes awry in certain eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa.
After the ceremonies, speakers, faculty, parents and other well-wishers mingled at a reception with refreshments where award winners who hadn't yet spoken presented posters on their research.