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Two NYU Scientists Named Howard Hughes Medical Institute's early career scientists

Two researchers from NYU School of Medicine have been named Early Career Scientists by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The honorees, Iannis Aifantis, Ph.D. associate professor of pathology, co-director of the Cancer Stem Cell Program at the NYU Cancer Institute and Jeremy S. Dasen Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and neuroscience at NYU School of Medicine are among 50 of the nation's top scientists being honored by HHMI under this new initiative to establish, develop and grow unique research programs.

Dr. Aifantis, a cancer biologist investigating T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia, a common form of leukemia in children and Dr. Dasen, a neuroscientist investigating the molecular code that helps developing motor neurons in the spinal cord connect with the muscles they control, will both receive a six-year appointment to the HHMI and funding to further explore their areas of research. HHMI will provide each NYU researcher with his full salary, benefits, and a research budget of $1.5 million over six-years.

"The entire NYU Langone Medical Center community is proud of the groundbreaking work being conducted by Dr. Aifantis and Dr. Dasen and we congratulate them on their selection as HHMI Early Career Scientists," said Robert I. Grossman, M.D., Dean and CEO of NYU Langone Medical Center. "These awards are recognition of the immense talent of these two scientists and the importance of the work that they are pursuing."

Dr. Aifantis has made majors strides towards understanding and developing new treatments for T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia. He recently discovered a molecular door by which T cells, the soldiers of the immune system, slip into spinal fluid and the brain after they become malignant. Blocking this process could save thousands of lives each year. Aifantis is now testing hundreds of potential drugs that might prevent malignant T cells from reaching the nervous system. At the same time, he is learning what goes awry in blood stem cells that transform into leukemic T cells. Such insights may provide even more ways to combat deadly blood cancers.

Dr. Dasen's research focuses on deciphering the molecular code that helps developing motor neurons in the spinal cord connect with the muscles they control. Understanding this code, which relies on a large family of genes that produce proteins called Hox factors, may help scientists restore motor neuron function in people whose spinal cords have been damaged by trauma or disease. Dasen, has found that Hox proteins are not just present in motor neurons; they are pervasive throughout the nervous system. He plans to explore whether Hox proteins in interneurons and sensory neurons, which control motor neuron firing patterns and transmit feedback about muscle action, help assemble the complete circuits that control walking and running.

"Dr. Aifantis and Dr. Dasen are fantastically promising scientists and scholars whom we are so proud and please to have as colleagues," said Vivian S. Lee, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., vice dean for science and chief scientific officer & senior vice president at NYU Langone Medical Center. "The recognition of their transformative research at NYU is another example of our world renowned medical institution's talented researchers being acknowledged for making strides towards finding treatments and future cures for disease."

Early Career Scientist Selection Process

NYU School of Medicine's Early Career Scientists Dr. Aifantis and Dr. Dasen are among researchers at 33 institutions across the United States, who have led their own laboratories for two to six years making considerable contributions to biomedical research. The idea of this new initiative started in 2007, when HHMI began to look for opportunities to diversify its research portfolio. The Institute decided to establish a new research program to provide much-needed support to some of the nation's best early career faculty at a time when they most need the help.

In March 2008, HHMI unveiled its new Early Career Scientist program and announced a nationwide competition seeking applications from the nation's best early career scientists. Those working in all areas of basic biological and biomedical research and areas of chemistry, physics, computer science, and engineering that are directly related to biology or medicine were invited to apply. The competition drew more than 2,000 applicants. In selecting the finalists, HHMI was guided by the same "people, not projects" philosophy that defines its investigator program. Like HHMI investigators, the Early Career Scientists will have the freedom to explore and, if necessary, change direction in their research. The 41 men and 9 women will begin their six-year, nonrenewable appointments to HHMI in September 2009. The Institute anticipates a second Early Career Scientist competition in 2012.


Contact: Lauren Woods
NYU Langone Medical Center / New York University School of Medicine

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