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Vol. LXIII, No. 21
October 14, 2011

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Twenty NIH-Supported Young Scientists Earn PECASE Honors
Drs. Sonja Best James Gulley Hari Shroff
Intramural PECASE honorees (from l) Drs. Sonja Best, James Gulley and Hari Shroff

Three NIH intramural scientists and 17 grantees are among 94 researchers named by President Obama on Sept. 26 as recipients of the 2010 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. Awardees win 5 years of research funding.

The intramural honorees are Dr. Sonja M. Best, chief, innate immunity and pathogenesis unit, Laboratory of Virology, Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), NIAID; Dr. James L. Gulley, director, clinical trials group, and deputy chief, Laboratory of Tumor Immunology and Biology, NCI; and Dr. Hari Shroff, chief and investigator, section on high resolution optical imaging, NIBIB.

Best, the first scientist from RML to win the award, and her research group exploit flaviviruses, which include the tick-borne encephalitis complex of viruses and West Nile virus (WNV), as models of infection to identify cellular proteins involved in anti-viral defense as well as understand the ways in which viruses evade early anti-viral responses. This knowledge will facilitate vaccine design and development of new therapies for treatment of infection.

In a recent study, Best’s group discovered how flaviviruses are able to efficiently invade and spread in a host. “Cells are supposed to sound an alarm when a dangerous pathogen approaches, like pulling a fire alarm,” she explains. “But WNV gets inside cells and silences the alarm so that the cell can’t hear it, making it more vulnerable. We have made important progress in understanding how the virus does this.”

This discovery and others in her lab have inspired new questions about flavivirus biology and pathogenesis that are being pursued by others in the field.

Gulley is especially interested in immunotherapy for prostate cancer. As director of the clinical trials group, he takes promising laboratory findings and uses them to design and conduct clinical trials. These studies involve the use of cancer vaccines and other immunostimulatory agents to modulate the immune response in cancer patients and the addition of other strategies to enhance vaccine-mediated killing.

He played a pivotal role in the clinical development of a prostate cancer vaccine created at NCI and is principal investigator on a global phase III randomized clinical trial of the vaccine. He is also a senior investigator in NCI’s Medical Oncology Branch.

Shroff’s lab works to develop novel optical imaging tools/microscopes. “We work on two broad areas: improving spatial resolution, that is, seeing smaller and smaller biological structures, and improving temporal resolution—seeing dynamic biological events at high speed.”

His group is developing a super-resolution optical technique for imaging structures 5-10 times smaller than the diffraction limit of a conventional optical microscope, i.e., 20-100 nanometers. “The technique we use most is photoactivated localization microscopy, initially prototyped at NIH by Eric Betzig, Harald Hess, Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz and coworkers,” said Shroff.

His group has also developed a “selective plane illumination microscope” that uses a thin sheet of light to illuminate living biological samples. “Our eventual goal is to build a dynamic 4-D atlas of brain development, highlighting the migrations and decisions of the neurons and their processes (axons) as the brain wires up in the embryo,” said Shroff.

The extramural awardees (and their funding sources) include Dr. Ronnie E. Amaro, University of California, Irvine (OD); Dr. David T. Breault, Children’s Hospital Boston (NIDDK); Dr. John S. Brownstein, Children’s Hospital Boston (NLM); Dr. Brian S. Caffo, Johns Hopkins University (NIBIB); Dr. Nicola J. Camp, University of Utah (NCI); Dr. Pierre R. Comizzoli, Smithsonian Institution (NCRR); Dr. Chyke A. Doubeni, University of Massachusetts Medical School (NCI); Dr. Jose C. Florez, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute (NIDDK); Dr. W. Nicholas Haining, Harvard Medical School (NIAID); Dr. Thomas L. Kash, University of North Carolina School of Medicine (NIAAA); Dr. John C. March, Cornell University (OD); Dr. Katherine L. O’Brien, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (NIMHD); Dr. Carla M. Pugh, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine (NIBIB); Dr. Jamie L. Renbarger, Indiana University (NICHD); Dr. Sara L. Sawyer, University of Texas at Austin, (NIGMS); Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, Florida International University (NIMHD); Dr. Linda E. Wilbrecht, University of California at San Francisco (NIDA).

The PECASE honor, established by President Clinton in 1996, is coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.

Since the program began, NIH has funded a total of 193 PECASE recipients. The NIH-supported awardees, along with other scientists from a total of 16 federal agencies, will be honored by President Obama at a White House ceremony later this year. NIHRecord Icon

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