When Mette Strand, a world-class researcher and outstanding graduate-student educator at Hopkins, died last fall, her colleagues in research and education wanted to remember her in a special and lasting way.
That remembrance begins this Friday, with a new annual award for student research named for Strand.
"We knew this is how she would like to be remembered: with an acknowledgment of students' achievements in Ph.D. research," says Thomas August, director of pharmacology and a colleague of Strand's.
The award will be one of 17 at the medical campus's annual Young Investigators' Day on April 9. Activities for the day, a tradition since 1978, start at 4 p.m. in the Preclinical Teaching Building.
"This is the day we set aside to honor the very best of the best," says Young Investigators Committee chairman Peter Agre, professor of medicine and of biological chemistry. "With the generous support of the Johns Hopkins Medical and Surgical Association and other donors, we will be recognizing a diverse group of young graduate and postgraduate scientists doing outstanding work in both basic and clinical research."
The Young Investigators Awards were established to recognize student investigators in the School of Medicine and provide them with a forum for presenting their work. Nominations are submitted by students to the Young Investigators Committee, which reviews the forms and selects the winners.
The first Strand Research Prize winner is Brian Lewis, a doctoral student under Hematology director Chi Van Dang. Lewis traced the activity of c-Myc, a gene involved in cancer, cell growth and cell death. The c-Myc protein turns on a number of genes, and Lewis used a new technique to identify 20 of those genes, five of which had not been identified before.
"We're particularly interested in a gene called rcl, which apparently allows cells to grow when they're not anchored to something," Lewis says. "This could be important to some tumors' ability to metastasize, and if it is, we might be able to develop a pharmaceutical way to block it."
Victor Velculescu, one of two Michael Shanoff Award winners, also studies cancer genetics.
Velculescu, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate who works with Kenneth Kinzler, associate professor of oncology, developed a new method for quickly analyzing the activity of the thousands of genes active at any time in a cell. The technique, called SAGE (serial analysis of gene expression), identifies unique tags in gene transcripts, the copies cells make of a gene's protein-building instructions when they're using the gene. Scientists use an automated DNA sequencer to scan the tags and match them to their corresponding gene transcript. Analysis of tens of thousands of SAGE tags allows researchers to obtain a global profile of gene activity within the cell.
"We have used SAGE to quantitatively analyze the complex differences between normal and cancerous cells," Velculescu says. "In analyzing cancer tissue and gene expression changes following activation of a gene linked to cancer, we have identified genes that may be important in cancer development and may prove useful as diagnostic markers or targets for therapy."
The other Shanoff Award winner, Prasad Jallepalli, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate under Thomas Kelly, director of Molecular Biology and Genetics, identified a mechanism that helps regulate DNA replication, the process cells use to duplicate their genetic information before dividing into identical daughter cells.
"There's a huge amount of genetic material to be duplicated every time a eukaryotic cell, the type of cell we are made of, divides," says Jallepalli. "To do this quickly and efficiently our cells simultaneously start the replication process at many different points on the genetic code."
But that solution leads to another complex task: how to make sure replication is started once and only once at each point. Jallepalli identified a group of three different proteins that interact to achieve this effect.
"There are replication proteins positioned at the start sites along the DNA," he explained. "Through phosphorylation, which adds a phosphate group, in rapid degradation of these proteins, the start sites are converted from active to inactive, and this explains the once-and-only-once nature of the switch."
Clinical research projects are also recognized at Young Investigators' Day, including the work of Julie Ann Sosa, a postdoctoral fellow under Neil Powe, associate professor of medicine.
Sosa will receive the Helen B. Taussig and Alfred Blalock Award for her study of whether the number of thyroid surgeries a doctor performed per year had any connection to the length of time his or her patient was hospitalized and the level of complications in each case.
"The highest-volume surgeons had the shortest length of patient stay both before and after adjusting for case-mix differences in the patients they saw and hospital volume," Sosa says. "They were also typically more expensive, but the surgeon with the highest volume, the lowest complication rate and adjusted length of patient stay also had the lowest hospital charges."
Sosa, Jallepalli, Velculescu, Lewis and Hans Joaquim Prochaska Research Prize winner Andrew Cameron, a Ph.D./M.D. student under Neuroscience director Solomon Snyder, will all present brief lectures on their award-winning work. A poster session with other award winners will also take place. A reception will follow.