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Vol. LVII, No. 18
September 9, 2005
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New Class to Be Named
Pioneer Award Winners to Speak at Symposium

Some of the nation's most visionary scientists — recipients of the NIH Director's Pioneer Award — will gather at Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10, on Thursday, Sept. 29. At the first annual NIH Director's Pioneer Award Symposium, the 2004 awardees will discuss their research and NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni will announce the 2005 cohort of recipients.

Come to hear how the Pioneer Award has enabled the 2004 recipients to focus and speed their efforts to answer some of the most basic and significant questions of biology: What does the production of a single protein look like? Can you build metabolic pathways? How are memories stored? How do viruses recognize and infect cells? Is there a better way to design a vaccine against HIV?

"Each Pioneer awardee is forging new ground in an important scientific field," said Zerhouni. "Our goal was to support scientists of exceptional creativity with pioneering concepts. It is obvious just from their first year of work that these scientists are making good on their promise to pursue far-ranging ideas that merit exploration."

Zerhouni will open the symposium at 8:15 a.m. A highlight of the day promises to be the 2 p.m. roundtable discussion among the 2004 award recipients. The event will end with an informal reception at 3 p.m.

Here is a taste of the scientific smorgasbord being offered at the symposium:

Dr. Larry Abbott of Columbia University is using mathematical modeling to study the neural networks responsible for our actions and behaviors. His group has devised a new model of synaptic signaling for memory storage and retrieval. This model explains how memories of past experiences are retained even as new memories are continually being formed. The model also makes predictions about the way synaptic connections between neurons change as a function of neural activity. Abbott's group is testing the model and exploring its implications for learning and for designing optimal training strategies.

Dr. George Daley of Children's Hospital Boston/ Harvard Stem Cell Institute aims to define the code that directs an embryonic stem cell to specialize, then use that information to regenerate function lost to disease. His ultimate goal is to reprogram body cells by means other than nuclear transfer, which he describes as essentially erasing everything and starting from scratch, and which he believes may be more drastic than necessary.

Dr. Homme Hellinga of Duke University Medical Center uses molecular simulation and protein engineering to build components of biological systems and manipulate their interactions. He envisions ways to design molecules with completely novel behaviors. Hellinga has developed a highly automated system to fabricate designed proteins, eliminating a major bottleneck in the process. His group has already used the system to design new enzymes and new DNA-binding proteins.

Dr. Mike McCune of the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology/University of California, San Francisco, is exploring host immune responses that can suppress HIV infection and disease progression. He is testing the hypothesis that effective immunity against HIV disease progression relies on a balance between immune responses that can clear virus and those that favor viral replication and spread.

Dr. Steven L. McKnight of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center is studying yeast metabolism to shed light on circadian rhythm, the built-in 24-hour clock that controls wakefulness, sleep, feeding and hunger in humans and many other organisms. His team has found that the yeast metabolic cycle is controlled by genes that are expressed in an oscillatory manner that is in perfect alignment with the shift between respiration and glycolysis, the two ways that yeast generate energy.

Dr. Chad Mirkin of Northwestern University is using nanobiology to examine how viruses recognize and infect cells as well as to probe complex cellular processes such as adhesion, motility, growth, differentiation and death. He has developed several nanotechnology tools to advance this research. Among these are coated nanoarrays that enable him to control how viruses or proteins assemble on a surface. He aims to find out whether controlling viruses in this way can facilitate or inhibit their ability to infect a cell. He has also begun to develop gold nanoparticles that can carry antisense DNA into a cell to alter gene expression.

Dr. Rob Phillips of the California Institute of Technology is using the principles of mathematics and physics to describe the machines within cells, their mechanical responses to various stimuli and how cells and viruses interact. His group has determined how bacterial viruses manage their genomes during viral assembly and infection. Phillips is also building artificial membranes and testing models that describe the interactions between ion channels and the lipids they encounter in their membrane environments.

Dr. Stephen Quake of Stanford University designs microchips that he uses to analyze DNA and single cells and to grow crystallized proteins. For example, using a chip that partitions microliters of fluid into thousands of independent chambers that hold only one molecule per chamber, Quake's group is measuring gene expression of transcription factors at levels as low as six gene copies.

Dr. Sunney Xie of Harvard University is developing tools to visualize the actions of a single enzyme or protein inside a living cell. His aim is to understand how molecular machines function in real time, individually and together. Xie's group has recently become the first to observe individual protein molecules being generated in live Escherichia coli cells.

The symposium agenda is at http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/pioneer/symposium2005. Attendance is free and there is no need to register.

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