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Vol. LXI, No. 24
November 27, 2009

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Zerhouni Named Science Envoy

Former NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni was recently named a U.S. science envoy by U.S. Department of State Secretary Hillary Clinton. Zerhouni is also a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program and chief scientific advisor for the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Zerhouni is one of three prominent U.S. scientists that Clinton named as science and technology envoys during a speech given Nov. 3 in Marrakech, Morocco. The envoys are to arrange scientific collaborations between the U.S. and countries in North Africa, the Middle East and in south and southeast Asia. The other envoys are Nobel laureate Dr. Ahmed Zewail, professor of chemistry and physics at Caltech, and Dr. Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We want to help Muslim majority communities develop the capacity to meet economic, social and ecological challenges through science, technology and innovation,” Clinton said. The envoys will be supported by new embassy officers who will also engage with international partners on the full range of environmental, scientific and health issues, from climate change and the protection of oceans and wildlife to cooperation on satellites and global positioning systems, according to the State Department.

Last May, Zerhouni was named a senior advisor to Johns Hopkins Medicine; he had been executive vice dean at that institution prior to being named NIH director in May 2002.

Zerhouni now serves on the boards of the Lasker Foundation, Research!America, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and the Mayo Clinic Foundation. He also serves as an external chief advisor for global science and technology for Sanofi-Aventis and was named chair of the Maryland Economic Development Commission in April 2009. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 2000.

NINDS’s Curfman Retires After 45 Years
By Shannon E. Garnett

Blanche Curfman
Blanche Curfman, a biologist in the NINDS Laboratory of Molecular Medicine and Neuroscience (LMMN), retired on Oct. 2, after 45 years of service— all with NINDS.

Curfman first came to NIH in 1962 as part of her summer internship in the NASA Bioscience Program. Her supervisor wanted Curfman and her fellow student interns to learn about the operations of other federal agencies by touring various facilities and visiting with the agencies’ administrators. “NIH and medical research became my goal for employment after that,” said Curfman.

In 1964, after graduating from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., she reached her goal and joined NIH as a laboratory biologist in the NINDS Infectious Diseases Branch, where she worked for 23 years before moving to LMMN.

During her tenure, Curfman worked on tissue culture studies, animal studies—including non-human primates, rodents, small mammals, cellular DNA, DNA in situ hybridization—and immunology studies. “I also have had the opportunity to shape the translational research part of the laboratory by confirming the diagnosis of a fatal brain disease,” she said, referring to her work on progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). PML is a disease caused by the reactivation of a common virus (called polyomavirus JC or JC virus) in the central nervous system of immune-compromised individuals. According to Curfman, PML is now studied with more prominence throughout the world in hopes of discovering a cure.

“Blanche Curfman impressed everyone with her thoroughly professional approach to her work in the laboratory—always exact, always excellent and always reliable and trustworthy,” said LMMN chief Dr. Eugene Major, who worked with Curfman for 22 years. “Almost overshadowing her extraordinary talents in science and lab management was her personal intuitive nature for others, showing concern for her friends and lab mates in a totally selfless way. She has a unique and genuine compassion for people that came through whether she was teaching new techniques to others or guiding new lab arrivals to sites in the Washington area.”

Throughout her time at NIH, Curfman received numerous awards and accolades including many NINDS Merit and Special Act or Service Recognition Awards and she co-authored several publications in medical journals. She also witnessed many changes at NIH, both physically and administratively. She served under the administrations of 7 NINDS directors, 2 acting NINDS directors, 9 NIH directors and through 3 name changes to the institute.

“I am truly thankful for the wonderful life that I have shared with many at NIH. I have been able to see the results of some of the contributions to medicine that I was privileged to work on in the laboratory over the years,” said Curfman, whose decision to retire was based on achieving the 45-year milestone and her desire to make room for the next generation of scientists. “I know that there are young people who need the opportunity to learn and contribute within the medical research field.”

In retirement, Curfman plans to become a docent or guide to welcome visitors to the Washington, D.C., area and encourage them to explore the many attractions the city has to offer. She also plans to read and record books for the visually impaired and for people with dyslexia. “That is so like her and so appropriate,” said Major. “Over 45 years she has helped so many at NIH see things that we would have missed if not for her gentle guidance.”

Weinberger Wins Zülch Prize

NIMH’s Dr. Daniel Weinberger (third from l) accepted the Zülch prize recently. With him are (from l) co-recipient Prof. Florian Holsboer;
Anna-Katharina Zülch, daughter of K.J. Zülch, whom the award commemorates; and Peter Gruss, president of the Max Planck Society.  
NIMH’s Dr. Daniel Weinberger (third from l) accepted the Zülch prize recently. With him are (from l) co-recipient Prof. Florian Holsboer; Anna-Katharina Zülch, daughter of K.J. Zülch, whom the award commemorates; and Peter Gruss, president of the Max Planck Society.  
NIMH scientist Dr. Daniel R. Weinberger has won this year’s Zülch prize, the premier award for neuroscience research in Europe. The prize, given each year by Germany’s Max Planck Society, honors outstanding achievements in basic neurological research. This year’s award cites Weinberger’s findings on the causes of psychiatric disease at the molecular level.

It is the first time the award has been given for psychiatric research. Since 1990, the honor has been given annually to two scientists. Weinberger’s co-recipient this year is Dr. Florian Holsboer at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, also for findings on the causes of psychiatric disease at the molecular level. This is the first time the award has gone to an NIH scientist.

Beginning before the advent of non-invasive functional brain imaging, Weinberger sought to characterize how deficits in cognitive function, such as those associated with schizophrenia, could be traced to anomalies in brain physiology and anatomy. As new technologies for imaging and gene discovery became available, he used them to investigate and identify risk-associated genes and to trace the effects of the protein transcripts of these genes and their variants on neurotransmitter function and brain circuitry. His lab has characterized how many potential schizophrenia susceptibility genes and novel gene transcripts regulate brain processes in cognition and emotion.

The Zülch prize recognizes the seminal nature of Weinberger’s work to characterize the abnormalities in brain development and circuitry that underlie the symptoms of schizophrenia and, more recently, to establish how variability in the genes that encode functional components of the brain translates into differences in brain function. Out of this work is emerging a picture of the genetic architecture of the brain and how variability in genes that shape normal brain function can be at the root of disease.

The Zülch prize commemorates German neurologist Dr. Klaus Joachim Zülch, former director of the Cologne department of general neurology at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, and is awarded by the Max Planck Society on behalf of a foundation established by Zülch’s sister.

NIDCD Mourns Former Scientific Director Wenthold

Dr. Robert J. Wenthold

Dr. Robert J. Wenthold died Oct. 30 after a 28-month battle with renal cancer. For the past two decades, Wenthold had been a scientist, mentor and administrator with the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Wenthold served as NIDCD’s scientific director from 1998 through 2008, and was a vital force in helping build the NIDCD intramural program’s research foundation in such areas as genetics, molecular and developmental biology, computational modeling and brain imaging. Through his open, understated managerial style, he worked to establish a cadre of expert researchers in the study of communication disorders at NIH while creating a research environment that would foster collaboration, idea-sharing and creativity. On the clinical side, he championed NIDCD’s Otolaryngology Research Fellow Program, a program that provides research training under the mentorship of NIDCD scientists and helps move research findings on potential treatments from the laboratory into clinical practice.

“Bob led NIDCD’s intramural program with the same skill and know-how he used when he addressed a scientific question in his lab,” said NIDCD director Dr. James F. Battey, Jr. “He was methodical. He was insightful. He had a dry wit that kept everyone on their toes. But first and foremost, he was committed to advancing the science and he was extremely effective at doing so. We will miss him as a colleague and a friend.”

After receiving his Ph.D. from Indiana University, Wenthold conducted postdoctoral work at NIH, then went on to become a faculty member in the department of neurophysiology at the University of Wisconsin. In 1984, he joined what was then the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke as a senior investigator and, in 1989, moved to NIDCD after its creation.

One of Wenthold’s most widely recognized scientific feats occurred that same year, when he cloned a member of the family of receptors for glutamate, a chemical that stimulates neurons in the brain and is important in a host of functions, including hearing, learning and memory.

The following year, he developed the first antibodies to these receptors as a useful tool for studying their properties.

“Essentially every neuron in the brain expresses at least one of these receptors, and most express many,” he said. “So anybody studying any aspect of the brain is going to be interested in glutamate receptors.”

He was right. His landmark 1992 paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry made him a household name within the neuroscience community and his lab soon became the number 1 laboratory in the world for developing and characterizing these antibodies. Since 1996, Wenthold led NIDCD’s Laboratory of Neurochemistry as well as its section on neurotransmitter receptor biology, which continues to study the assembly, trafficking and synaptic expression of glutamate receptors.

Perhaps Wenthold’s most lasting legacy will be his role in training and mentoring the next wave of young researchers. Many of the field’s top scientists point to his leadership in helping them launch their scientific careers.

Wenthold initiated NIDCD’s collaborative program with the University of Maryland, which provides graduate students with research experience in NIDCD laboratories and served as a model for NIH’s Graduate Partnerships Program (GPP). As a testament to his leadership, he was presented GPP’s Outstanding Mentor Award in November 2008.

“He inspired me to pursue my Ph.D.,” said Dr. Philip Wang, an NIDCD post-doctoral researcher who has studied with Wenthold ever since he received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia and who nominated Wenthold for the award.

“He was always extremely busy, but his door was wide open to us, no matter what,” said Wang. “Bob loved science. Whenever I had new slides to look at, he’d enthusiastically join me in the microscope room to view them with me. I always looked forward to having new data so that I would be able to spend that personal time with him.”

Wenthold is survived by his wife of 38 years, Kris, his son Robert Jr., daughter Elisabeth Lucas, granddaughter Marissa, and sisters Phyllis Arendt and Mary Ann Mahaffey, along with other family members. Donations can be made in his name to the Patient Emergency Fund, Social Work Department, NIH Clinical Center, 10 Center Dr., Rm. 2-3-581. NIDCD is planning a neuroscience seminar in his honor, details of which will be announced later.

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