Rita Allen Foundation Announces 2016 Scholars

The Princeton-based Rita Allen Foundation has named its 2016 class of scholars — seven young leaders in biomedical science whose research holds promise for advancing human health.

Scholars will receive grants of up to $110,000 annually for a maximum of five years to pursue innovative research. The scholars were selected for their original scientific approaches, their focus on areas of global concern, and their demonstration of leadership and learning potential.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the scholars program, which began in 1976 as one of the first philanthropic fellowship programs of its kind for early-career biomedical researchers. The Rita Allen Foundation has provided funding to more than 150 young leaders in biomedical science. Scholars have gone on to make fundamental contributions to their fields of study, and have won recognition including the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize in Medicine, the Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

“For 40 years, the Rita Allen Foundation has been investing in outstanding biomedical scientists at the early stages of their careers. With the class of 2016, we again are providing resources to these Scholars to pioneer bold approaches and innovative discoveries,” said Elizabeth Good Christopherson, president and chief executive officer of the Rita Allen Foundation. “They will explore alternative treatments for childhood cancers, illuminate how diet changes our brains and affects our health, and investigate how chronic pain alters the central nervous system. These leaders join our community of Scholars, whose efforts to address basic biological questions are essential for improving health and reducing suffering caused by disease.”

The members of the 2016 class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars are:

Steve Davidson, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine – Davidson will explore how the brain’s processing of emotion affect the perception of pain. Some patients with injuries to limbic areas of the brain, which surround the thalamus, experience pain asymbolia—a condition in which they are aware of pain but are not distressed by it. Davidson will study how neurons in the thalamus participate in the emotional perception of pain.

Camila dos Santos, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory – Dos Santos will explore the molecular basis of pregnancy-induced breast cancer protection. Last year dos Santos set up her own lab at Cold Spring Harbor, where she and her team are studying breast development in mouse models. They have found dramatic differences in the pace of breast development between first and second pregnancies, which appear to be mediated by molecular changes that affect gene expression without altering DNA sequences. The  award will allow the dos Santos lab to assess the relevance of these phenomena for breast cancer risk, which is at least 30 percent lower in women who have a full-term pregnancy before the age of 25.

Monica Dus, University of Michigan – Dus will look at how sugar in the diet influences feeding behavior. Dus and her group at the University of Michigan are using fruit flies as a model to understand how a high-sugar diet deregulates the dynamic balance between hunger and satiety. She hopes her research will shed light on obesity and overeating, not as a problem of willpower, but as a problem of biochemistry.

Katherine Hanlon, University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine – Hanlon will explore how interactions between neurons and immune cells at the roots of spinal nerves impact sensitivity to pain. Hanlon and her research group plan to study the relationship between macrophages—immune cells that reside in all of the body’s tissues—and pain signaling in dorsal root ganglia, which are bundles of nerve cells found at the base of spinal nerves. They will evaluate how these macrophages may contribute to the development of chronic pain by triggering the recruitment of other immune cells to neural tissue.

Alex Kentsis, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center – Kentsis will look at how DNA contributes to the development of childhood cancers. His current research employs new technologies in genomics and proteomics to unravel cancer signaling pathways and explore therapeutic approaches to re-engineer these pathways. His laboratory will examine the mechanisms and targets of a human DNA transposase. Kentsis and his colleagues recently discovered that this transposase exhibits abnormal activity in many embryonal tumors, which develop in the central nervous system in children and are thought to arise from residual embryonic cells.

Bo Li, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Li will explore whether molecules produced by gut bacteria modulate the human nervous system. Li and her colleagues are taking a multidisciplinary approach to discover new antibiotics and other bioactive molecules from a variety of sources. They conduct “genome mining” of microbial DNA sequences to identify biosynthetic pathways, and then use genetic engineering and chemical screening methods to characterize these new classes of molecules.

Katharina Schlacher, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center – Schlacher will explore how defects in the protection of stalled mitochondrial DNA replication forks impact the development of cancer and other diseases. Schlacher has hypothesized that impaired fork protection in mitochondria, the energy-producing compartments of cells, may explain the increased risks for metabolic and cardiac complications observed in some breast cancer patients and those with Fanconi anemia, a blood cell production disorder linked to BRCA mutations.