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March of Dimes awards $250,000 prize to leaders in understanding embryonic development

HONOLULU, MAY 5, 2008 Two scientists who helped explain how embryos develop and form limbs, the brain, and other organs have been chosen to receive the 2008 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology.

Philip A. Beachy, PhD, and Clifford J. Tabin, PhD will share the 2008 March of Dimes Prize for their pioneering work that has expanded our understanding of how hedgehog genes and their protein signals guide the formation of the brain, limbs, spinal cord, axial skeleton and other organs during embryonic and fetal development. Their work has become a model for how communication between cells directs the course of animal development.

The March of Dimes Prize is a $250,000 cash award and a silver medal in the design of the Roosevelt dime, in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who founded the March of Dimes. The Prize will be awarded to Dr. Beachy and Dr. Tabin at a gala black tie dinner and ceremony at the Moana Surfrider here.

Hedgehog genes have a wide-ranging role in mammalian development, said Michael Katz, MD, senior vice president for Research and Global Programs at the March of Dimes. Dr. Beachys and Dr. Tabins studies have provided crucial insight into how some birth defects and some cancers develop. The results of their research have expanded our knowledge of how these genes control the division of adult stem cells.

The genes are named hedgehog because when mutations that caused the gene to lose function first were identified (in fruit flies), they gave the embryos a prickly appearance. The genes protein signals play a crucial role in how cells organize themselves in the body and form specific organs.

For example, these signals are involved in why the heart is located on the left and not the right side of the body; why we have two eyes and nostrils instead of one; why the thumb is different from the little finger; and why different types of neurons form in specific locations within the spinal cord.

Dr. Beachy is the Ernest and Amelia Gallo Professor in the Department of Developmental Biology and in the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in Stanford, Calif. His research elucidated the processing and structure of the hedgehog protein signal and its attachment to cholesterol, and led to an understanding of malformations caused by deficiencies in hedgehog signaling, including brain and facial malformations associated with holoprosencephaly (when the brain fails to completely develop and divide). His work also produced important insights into the role and treatment of inappropriate hedgehog pathway activity in cancer.

Dr. Tabin is the George Jacob and Jacqueline Hazel Leder Professor and chair of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts. His research explains how anatomical form and organization emerge during the embryonic development of an organism, and how errors in this process lead to birth defects. His work with the Sonic hedgehog gene led to the first identification of genes differentially expressed on the left and right sides of the early embryo, a major breakthrough in understanding left-right asymmetry; as well as to an understanding of how bones muscles and tendons are placed in their proper orientation in the forming limbs.

The March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology has been awarded annually since 1996 to investigators whose research has profoundly advanced the science that underlies the understanding of birth defects. The March of Dimes Foundation created the Prize as a tribute to Dr. Jonas Salk, who received Foundation support for his work to create a polio vaccine.

Also on May 5, Dr. Beachy and Dr. Tabin will deliver the Thirteenth Annual March of Dimes Prize Lectures at the Hawaii Convention Center during the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies.


Contact: Elizabeth Lynch
March of Dimes Foundation

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