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2 UMHS researchers selected as Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators


ANN ARBOR, MI – Two researchers from the University of Michigan Health System were among the 15 top physician-scientists nationally who were appointed as Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators.

The two UMHS scientists are:

* Arul Chinnaiyan, M.D., Ph.D., S.P. Hicks Endowed Professor of Pathology and director of the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology. Chinnaiyan’s research focuses on genetic patterns and molecular signatures involved in cancer.
* Friedhelm Hildebrandt, M.D., Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor for the Cure and Prevention of Birth Defects. Hildebrandt is an internationally known expert in the genetic basis of several severe kidney diseases that cause early renal failure in infants and children.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is a non-profit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation’s largest philanthropies. This initiative underscores HHMI’s commitment to ensuring that basic research discoveries are translated into improved treatments for patients. The institute has committed approximately $150 million to 15 researchers’ first 5-year term of appointment.

The new HHMI investigators, who come from 13 institutions from across the country, were selected in a nationwide competition that sought applications from researchers who lead patient-oriented research programs and whose scientific work is guided by their interaction with patients.

HHMI enters into long-term collaboration agreements with universities and other academic research organizations, where its investigators hold faculty appointments. Under these agreements, HHMI investigators, who are directly employed by the institute, and their research teams carry out their research in HHMI laboratories located on various campuses. Through its flagship investigator program, HHMI has joined with more than 60 distinguished U.S. universities, hospitals, institutes and medical schools to provide long-term support for 291 Hughes scientists and members of their research teams.

Arul M. Chinnaiyan, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. ChinnaiyanArul Chinnaiyan’s team has published groundbreaking research on the discovery that pieces of two chromosomes can trade places with each other and cause two genes to fuse together. The fused genes then override the “off” switch that keeps cells from growing uncontrollably, causing prostate cancer to develop. Chinnaiyan and his team have shown the fusions actually cause prostate cancer to develop.

The gene fusion research is the centerpiece project of Chinnaiyan’s new center, the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology. The center is founded around the idea of translating laboratory research findings into a test or treatment that will impact patients. The center brings together experts in genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics to look at common patterns and potential targets in cancer and other diseases.

Chinnaiyan’s research focuses on examining the genes, proteins and other markers on cells to develop new diagnostic tests or screening tools as well as targeted treatments for cancer and other diseases, with the key being to translate these laboratory discoveries into clinical applications.

Arul Chinnaiyan is professor of pathology and urology at the U-M Medical School. He received his bachelor’s, doctorate and medical degrees all from the University of Michigan. He is a recipient of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Clinical Scientist Award in Translational Research and of the Ramzi Cotran Young Investigator Award from the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology. He was recently elected a member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation. He was the leader of a group of scientists who recently received the inaugural American Association of Cancer Research “Team Science” Award for their discovery of gene fusions in prostate cancer.

Friedhelm Hildebrandt, M.D.

Dr. HildebrandtFriedhelm Hildebrandt is an internationally known expert in the genetic basis of several severe kidney diseases that cause early renal failure in infants and children. His discoveries have led to new insights into the common roots of congenital kidney, eye and other diseases.

Hildebrandt has spent 15 years tracking down the genes and proteins responsible for one family of congenital cystic kidney diseases called nephronophthisis or NPHP. Collaborating with scientists worldwide, his lab has discovered more than 10 gene mutations that contribute to these diseases. In 2003 his lab found out that a common denominator of these diseases is a defect in the function of so-called “cilia”, antenna-like structures that cells use for communication with the outside.

In research on nephrotic syndrome, a severe form of congenital kidney disease, Hildebrandt’s team found that steroid drugs given in infancy can in some cases keep children with two serious genetic mutations disease-free, showing the value for early genetic testing.

Hildebrandt’s goal is to discover all the principal genes involved in the diseases he studies and to develop effective screening tests and treatments. Using zebrafish with mutations like those in humans, Hildebrandt and his team hope to identify new drugs that could reverse the kidney damage caused by nephrotic syndrome.

Friedhelm Hildebrandt is professor of pediatrics and of human genetics at the U-M Medical School and holds an endowed chair as the Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor for the Cure and Prevention of Birth Defects. He received a preclinical degree from Marburg University Medical School, and a clinical and medical degree from Heidelberg University in Germany. He is a recipient of the Franz Volhard Award of the German Society of Nephrology, the E. Mead Johnson Award for Pediatric Research from the Society for Pediatric Research, and a Doris Duke Distinguished Clinical Scientist Award. He was elected a member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and of the Association of American Physicians.

Written by Nicole Fawcett


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