The Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 5, 1999
Apr. 5, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 29


Young Investigators To Be Honored

School of Medicine lauds outstanding research by 18 students and postdocs

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Diana Finzi remembers that she was holding her crying baby when the phone rang. Finzi, a doctoral candidate in the School of Medicine, had just given birth two days before getting a call from Peter Agre, chair of the Young Investigators Committee.

Agre's committee oversees the awarding of prizes for the top-flight research being conducted by the school's students and fellows. He was calling to tell her that she had won the Michael A. Shanoff Research Prize, a prestigious award established in 1977 to recognize excellence in research.

Finzi, however, clearly had other matters on her mind that day.

"He said, 'Congratulations Diana,' and I assumed he meant me having the baby," Finzi recalls. "I thought it was one of my husband's colleagues."

Soon she realized who she was talking to--and what they were talking about.

"I was shocked. I was really surprised," says Finzi, now in her sixth year. "It's just a huge honor."

Finzi's research, done in collaboration with other researchers, involved testing the theory that the AIDS virus could be cured in three to four years by the use of protease inhibitors, which are in what is commonly referred to as drug cocktails.

The results spoke otherwise.

"It was really bad news. The result was that the virus wasn't completely gone, and [the patients] couldn't come off therapy," Finzi says. The virus had survived in roughly one out of every million resting CD4+ T cells.

Her research, however, gave further proof that the drug therapy kept the virus in check and that it likely stopped some patients from going off therapy in the belief they were cured.

The findings were published in the journal Science, and stories about the research appeared in national newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Yet, according to Agre, the best from Finzi is likely still to come.

"Those who have won the Shanoff typically go on to great things," Agre says.

Finzi is one of the 18 medical students and postdoctoral fellows who will be awarded research prizes on Young Investigators' Day, an annual event that will be held at 4 p.m. on April 8 at the Preclinical Teaching Building in East Baltimore.

The event was established in 1978 to recognize student investigators in the School of Medicine and to provide them with a forum to present their work.

Agre says the 25-member committee that chooses the winners typically has a very difficult job, and this year was no exception. The committee, compromised of faculty from throughout the School of Medicine, this year received more than 70 submissions from researchers in both clinical and basic science departments.

"Outstanding work is being done by these young investigators. I can't tell you how difficult the decisions were," says Agre, a professor of biological chemistry. "These awards are like the Olympic finals. The winners are fantastic, but so are the runners-up."

The other Shanoff award winner this year was Parag Patil, an M.D./ Ph.D. candidate.

Patil's research focused on mechanisms that control the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically looking at presynaptic inhibition and short-term inactivation of neuronal calcium channels. Entry of calcium through voltage-gated channels into presynaptic terminals triggers neurotransmitter release, Patil says. When these calcium channels are inhibited, nerve cells in the brain are less able to talk to one another.

"One of the reasons that opiates cause pain relief is that they inhibit calcium channels and prevent neurotransmitters from being released," Patil says. The result is that pain messages from the body to the brain are interrupted.

Patil, who will be going on to a residency in neurosurgery at Duke, says research like his is part of a movement to further understand how the brain works, perhaps leading to the development of new treatments for pain and such ailments as Parkinson's disease and epilepsy.

To uncover some of their findings, Patil and his fellow researchers had to develop new mathematical tools and apply a multidisciplinary approach. Patil, who co-authored several scientific papers about his work, says this research was a team effort.

"What is really incredible about Hopkins is the extent to which people collaborate and work with one another," Patil says. "That is what makes Hopkins so unique. You have tremendously successful scientists who are able to work closely together."

Patil also recalls a baby connection when he relates how he learned he had won the award.

"I was doing OB/GYN. It was this really cool day--I had just delivered two babies when I called my answering machine and heard the message that I had won," Patil says. "It was both incredibly affirming and humbling at the same time. You look at the list of who has won this award, and it's just amazing. That is what probably had the most profound effect on me. It's incredible just to be considered in the same group as these famous scientists."

Both Patil and Finzi will present lectures based on their findings at the awards day program. Other doctoral candidate award winners will present posters representing their work.

The David Israel Macht Research Prize will be presented to Steve Laken and Carlos Aizenman, both doctoral candidates.

Laken's identification of a gene variant causing a high risk for familial colon cancer has already received national news coverage, and Aizenman's studies have created a major breakthrough in neuroscience.

Laken, who started his research three years ago, says he had no idea his research would take him this far.

"It started as a side project that didn't seem like it was going to amount to anything," Laken says. "The most interesting discoveries are often made serendipitously. I started working on this in the background, but the more I worked on it, the more I realized it was this genetic mutation that was causing this disease." For his characterization of molecular mechanisms regulating synthesis of nitric oxide and platelet activating factor, Samie Jaffrey will be awarded the Hans Joaquim Prochaska Research Prize. The committee considered this work especially notable because the field of nitric oxide research--which has resulted from fundamental discoveries made in Solomon Snyder's neuroscience research laboratory at Hopkins--is very exciting right now. This award has been endowed by professor Paul Talalay in memory of his former student, Hans Prochaska, a previous Shanoff awardee, whose untimely death occurred last year.

Talalay, who helped organize the first Young Investigators' Day, says the awards day has become a major event on the East Baltimore campus.

"We are honoring our students and postdoctoral fellows who are the backbone of our research," says Talalay, the J.J. Abel Distinguished Service Professor in the lab for molecular pharmacology. "We ought to make a fuss about this. This is education--conveying of science from one generation to the next."

The Martin and Carol Macht Research Prize will be presented to Krishnan Ramanathan for discovery of the molecular basis for processing sound. Honored with the Mette Strand Research Prize, Kevin O'Donovan characterized an important new family of gene transcription factors. Lisa Kreppel will receive the Alicia Showalter Reynolds Research Prize for her studies of the enzyme responsible for O-linked glycosylation, a fundamental post-translational modification discovered by the research team of Jerry Hart, Kreppel's mentor.

The Paul Ehrlich Research Prizes will be presented to Chia-Che Chiang, Hualing Dong, and Eric Wilkens and Alan Meeker for important work on the gene responsible for Zellweger syndrome, neuroreceptor binding proteins and prostate cancer.

The Johns Hopkins Medical and Surgical Association also has sponsored research awards for postdoctoral fellows undertaking clinical research, clinically relevant laboratory research and basic laboratory research. Three postdoctoral fellows will present lectures at the Young Investigators' program.

The inaugural A. McGehee Harvey Award will be presented to Fred Bunz for his discovery of major new roles of the p53 protein in cancer therapy. The prize will be presented in memory of Harvey, by his daughter Joan Harvey, a graduate of the School of Medicine and dean of students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The Helen B. Taussig Research Prize will go to Pushkal Garg, for identifying important racial disparities in access to renal transplantation. The Alfred Blalock Research Prize will go to Michael Shamblott for the first cultivation of human primordial germ cells, an accomplishment regarded as a major breakthrough in transplantation biology, which has already been discussed on the floor of the U.S. Congress and in the media.

Other postdoctoral winners will present their research in posters.

Lisa Wood will receive the Barry W. Wood Jr. Research Prize for her work on a new oncogene. Patrick Swanson and Franck Polleux will share the Albert Lehninger Research Prize for fundamental discoveries in immunoglobulin recombination and neuronal axon projections.