Six young scientists at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), Rockefeller University, and Weill Cornell Medical College have been named the inaugural winners of a new prize established to recognize postdoctoral investigators in the life sciences. The Tri-Institutional Breakout Awards for Junior Investigators, which include a $25,000 prize for each recipient, were established by three Tri-Institutional winners of the 2013 Breakthrough Prize in Life Science — one from each of the three institutions — with additional financial support from the institutions themselves.
Recipients of this year’s Breakout Awards are: Julian Lange of Memorial Sloan Kettering; Hani Goodarzi, Ziv Shulman, and Jing Yang of Rockefeller; and Dilek Colak and Costas Lyssiotis of Weill Cornell. The awards will be celebrated at a Tri-Institutional luncheon on Wednesday, June 17.
The seed money for the Breakout Awards came from three investigators — Charles L. Sawyers, MD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering; Cornelia I. Bargmann, PhD, of Rockefeller; and Lewis C. Cantley, PhD, of Weill Cornell — who each received a $3 million award from the 2013 Breakthrough Prize, which was established by a group of well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The three institutions have also contributed funds.
“As chair of the selection committee, I’m extremely pleased that in this inaugural year of the award, we had so many highly deserving candidates nominated. It confirms for me the high quality of the work being done by many young scientists at our three institutions, and I am proud to recognize some of their accomplishments through these new awards,” said Elaine Fuchs, head of the Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development at Rockefeller. “I applaud Breakthrough Prize winners Cori, Charles, and Lew for establishing these wonderful prizes.”
Beginning this year, Breakout Awards will be given annually to between three and six outstanding postdoctoral trainees, with one prize given to an applicant from each of the three founding institutions and additional awards made to the best candidates regardless of affiliation. A committee containing faculty members from each of the institutions selects awardees on the basis of their past research accomplishments, the impact of their science, and the likelihood of their future success as independent investigators. The contributing Breakthrough Prize winners were not involved in the selection of the winning postdocs.
“I was deeply honored to be named one of the recipients of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, then shocked when I learned about the size of the cash prize,” said Dr. Sawyers, chair of MSK’s Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program. “A few weeks after the announcement, at an informal celebratory dinner with my fellow New York City recipients Cori Bargmann and Lew Cantley, we hatched a plan to ‘pay it forward’ by creating a large cash prize award for outstanding postdoctoral fellows.”
“It’s such a pleasure to see compelling scientists emerge, at every career stage but especially early. We’re lucky to be able to recognize them and bring attention to their accomplishments,” said Dr. Bargmann, Torsten N. Wiesel Professor and head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior at Rockefeller.
“In this challenging funding environment, it can be difficult for young investigators to get the support they need to conduct basic and translational research. I am happy to help as they work towards making the next significant breakthroughs in their fields,” said Dr. Cantley, the Meyer Director of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center and the Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor in Oncology Research at Weill Cornell.
“Many congratulations to the six inaugural winners of the Breakout Prize for their achievements; and to the three Breakthrough Prize laureates and their institutions for founding this new award in recognition of outstanding life science researchers,” said Yuri Milner, a founding sponsor of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
2015 BREAKOUT RECIPIENTS
Hani Goodarzi, Rockefeller University
As a graduate student at Princeton University, Goodarzi used computational and experimental approaches to explore complex traits at the level of genes. His postdoctoral work, first at Princeton and now at Rockefeller, combines analysis of large data sets with rigorous cellular, molecular, and biochemical experimentation to develop new frameworks with which to study cancer progression. In Sohail Tavazoie’s Laboratory of Systems Cancer Biology, Goodarzi is using an algorithm he developed at Princeton to scan both the sequence and shape of RNA molecules in breast cancer cells, leading to the discovery of a post-transcriptional network that regulates metastasis.
Julian Lange, Memorial Sloan Kettering
As a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lange studied homologous recombination (the exchange of DNA sequences) in the Y chromosome. As a postdoctoral fellow collaborating with molecular biologist Scott Keeney and developmental biologist Maria Jasin, he is studying recombination in the creation of egg and sperm cells. This process ensures that cells undergoing division to become egg and sperm (a process called meiosis) pass down the correct amount of DNA to those meiotic cells. It also creates a potentially hazardous scenario for them because it involves intentionally damaging DNA with double-strand breaks. Lange has pioneered novel methods for studying recombination in mice, and his work has revealed important insights into how cells regulate this dangerous but essential form of DNA damage. In his recent work, he has uncovered how meiotic cells regulate the distribution of DNA damage.
Ziv Shulman, Rockefeller University
Shulman’s graduate work, conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, investigated how circulating immune cells exit blood vessels and infiltrate tissues as part of an inflammatory response. As a postdoctoral fellow in Michel Nussenzweig’s Laboratory of Molecular Immunology, Shulman’s research focuses on the formation of protective antibodies during the immune response. By directly visualizing this process he uncovered the cellular mechanism and signaling events by which the immune system, in response to vaccination, selects cells to produce efficient antibodies against future invading pathogens. His work answered several open questions in the field and has implications in design of vaccination strategies, especially when inducing immune protection against chronic infections or pathogens such as HIV.
Jing Yang, Rockefeller University
As a graduate student in Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein’s laboratory at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Yang identified the key enzyme that activates the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin. As a postdoctoral associate in Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair, he studies the molecular mechanisms by which the branches of neurons, called axons, degenerate following disease or injury. His investigation has begun to uncover a novel pathway underlying degeneration caused by injury. This newly described signaling pathway may have broad implications for neurodegenerative disease in general. This summer, Yang will join the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Peking University as a principal investigator.
Dilek Colak, Weill Cornell Medical College
As a graduate student at Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany, Colak researched why some regions of the adult brain generate new nerve cells, or neurons, while other areas do not. Her findings have provided insight into how neurogenesis — the process by which neurons are generated — could be manipulated for therapeutic purposes. As a postdoctoral fellow in Samie R. Jaffrey’s lab at Weill Cornell, Colak is investigating the mechanisms that cause neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism, mental retardation and schizophrenia. These diseases are especially hard to study, since the genetic mutations that researchers believe to be the root causes are not found, nor can they be mimicked, in animal models. Using human embryonic stem cells and patient-donated stem cells, Colak has been able to study these diseases at the cellular level. She most recently used this investigative method with fragile X syndrome, a genetic form of mental retardation and autism. Colak discovered that fragile X occurs because of a mechanism that shuts off the gene associated with the disease.
Costas Lyssiotis, Weill Cornell Medical College
As a graduate student at The Scripps Research Institute, Lyssiotis discovered drug-like molecules that convert differentiated cells into stem cells. As a postdoctoral fellow in Lewis Cantley’s laboratory at Weill Cornell, Lyssiotis investigates the biochemical pathways and metabolic requirements that enable pancreatic tumor growth, and is translating discoveries into the development of targeted therapies. Among his many contributions, Lyssiotis demonstrated that pancreatic cancers are addicted to glucose and glutamine and use these nutrients in previously undescribed pathways to make DNA and to generate antioxidants that combat molecules that cause disease and age-related tissue damage, called free radicals. Lyssiotis will join the University of Michigan Medical School this summer as an assistant professor, with appointments in the Departments of Physiology and Medicine.
ABOUT THE BREAKOUT PRIZE
The Tri-Institutional Breakout Awards for Junior Investigators, first awarded in 2015, were established by three winners of the prestigious Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences as a means of investing in promising early-career investigators. The three Breakthrough Prize winners – Sawyers, Cantley, and Bargmann – pooled a portion of their prize money to establish the annual prize. Including financial commitments made by each of their respective institutions, the award is sustained by a $3 million endowment. One prize is awarded to an applicant from each of the three founding institutions, and additional awards are given to the best candidates within the Tri-Institutional community, regardless of their affiliation.
ABOUT The Rockefeller University
The Rockefeller University is one of the world’s foremost biomedical research institutes and is dedicated to conducting innovative, high-quality research to improve the understanding of life for the benefit of humanity.
Founded in 1901, The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was the country’s first institution devoted exclusively to biomedical research. In the 1950s, the Institute expanded its mission to include graduate education and began training new generations of scientists to become research leaders around the world. In 1965, it was renamed The Rockefeller University. Its more than 70 laboratories conduct biological and biomedical research and a community of over 2,000 faculty, students, postdocs, technicians, clinicians and administrative personnel work at the University’s 14-acre campus.
Rockefeller’s unique approach to science has led to some of the world’s most revolutionary contributions to biology and medicine. During Rockefeller’s history, 24 of its scientists have won Nobel Prizes, 21 have won Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards and 20 have garnered the National Medal of Science, the highest science award given by the United States.
ABOUT Weill Cornell Medical College
Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University’s medical school located in New York City, is committed to excellence in research, teaching, patient care and the advancement of the art and science of medicine, locally, nationally and globally. Physicians and scientists of Weill Cornell Medical College are engaged in cutting-edge research from bench to bedside, aimed at unlocking mysteries of the human body in health and sickness and toward developing new treatments and prevention strategies. In its commitment to global health and education, Weill Cornell has a strong presence in places such as Qatar, Tanzania, Haiti, Brazil, Austria and Turkey. Through the historic Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, the Medical College is the first in the U.S. to offer its M.D. degree overseas. Weill Cornell is the birthplace of many medical advances — including the development of the Pap test for cervical cancer, the synthesis of penicillin, the first successful embryo-biopsy pregnancy and birth in the U.S., the first clinical trial of gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease, and most recently, the world’s first successful use of deep brain stimulation to treat a minimally conscious brain-injured patient. Weill Cornell Medical College is affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where its faculty provides comprehensive patient care at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The Medical College is also affiliated with Houston Methodist. For more information, visit weill.cornell.edu.