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President Obama announced last Thursday that two Hutchinson Center investigators would receive the nation’s highest honor for scientists at the beginning of their independent research careers. Basic scientist Dr. Harmit Malik and cancer-prevention researcher Dr. Ulrike “Riki” Peters are among 100 researchers to receive the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. They will be honored at a ceremony this fall at the White House.
Since 1996 the annual PECASE awards have honored the most promising young researchers in the U.S. whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for strengthening America’s leadership in science. The Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President coordinates the awards. Nine federal departments and agencies join together annually to nominate the candidates. Selection for the award is based on two criteria:
- innovative research at the frontiers of sciences and technology that is relevant to the mission of the sponsoring organization or agency, and
- community service demonstrated through scientific leadership, education or community outreach.
Malik and Peters join previous PECASE winners at the Hutchinson Center Drs. Cecilia Moens, William Grady and Effie Wang Petersdorf.
Malik: Studying the causes and consequences of genetic conflict
Malik is an evolutionary biologist who joined the Basic Sciences Division faculty in 2003. He also is an affiliate assistant professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The National Science Foundation, which supports his work, nominated him for the award. Earlier this year he was appointed a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist.
Malik studies genetic conflict. He sees battles raging within a cell’s nucleus as genes jockey for evolutionary dominance. These clashes can have a long-term impact on organisms, as they sometimes alter the function of essential genes. He uses biochemistry and genomics to study the causes and consequences of these genetic conflicts in yeast, fruit flies and other model organisms. His work has offered novel explanations for host-pathogen interactions and for the evolution of structural DNA elements (centromeres) that are critical for proper cell division.
Recently, Malik and colleagues have turned their attention to the phenomenon of “viral mimicry,” in which viral proteins can resemble host proteins to hijack important cellular functions. His lab showed that host proteins could evolve to defeat viral mimicry, providing yet another nuance to a never-ending “arms race” between hosts and viruses.
The National Science Foundation funded a project of Malik’s that will study and identify cases of “reverse mimicry,” in which host genomes hijack viral proteins to protect themselves against viral infections. In particular, he will focus on such a gene that he discovered while a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Hutchinson Center basic scientist Dr. Steven Henikoff.
“Harmit thinks creatively and fearlessly about his research,” said colleague Dr. Mark Groudine, the Center's deputy director and former director of the Basic Sciences Division. “His thinking really pushes the envelope, and his ideas have had an enormous impact on the field.”
Peters: Linking nutrition and cancer prevention
Peters, who was nominated for the PECASE by the National Institutes of Health, which supports her work, joined the faculty of the Cancer Prevention Program in the Public Health Sciences Division in 2004. She also is a research associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine.
A nutritional and genetic epidemiologist, Peters studies the link between nutrition and cancer prevention—particularly how the interplay of genetics and nutrition can impact cancer risk. Analyzing blood, DNA and tissue samples from large study populations, her work focuses on integrating genetic and molecular methods to better understand the role selenium, vitamin D, calcium and other dietary components may play in preventing prostate and colorectal cancer.
Selenium, for example, found in grains, bread, eggs, meat and fish, plays a key role in activating a small number of enzymes called selenoenzymes, which can protect cells against DNA damage that can lead to cancer. Peters and colleagues are studying whether genetic variations in selenoenzymes are associated with risk for prostate cancer, and whether such genetic variations alter the association between selenium intake and prostate-cancer risk.
Selenium represents only one aspect of Peters’ research. Incorporating molecular and genetic approaches, she also studies vitamin D and calcium in the prevention of colon cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.
Peters also studies genetic variants across the entire genome and is currently conducting genomewide association studies for colon and breast cancer. The goal is to identify new genetic markers that scientists can use to develop better ways to detect, treat and prevent these diseases. As part of this work, she leads a large international consortium for genomewide association studies of colorectal cancer that combines data from several well-characterized population-based studies. The consortium aims to determine whether genetic variants affect colorectal cancer and whether environmental factors, including diet, drug use and smoking, modify the impact of genetic variations associated with colorectal cancer.
“This award is richly deserved,” said Dr. Polly Newcomb, head of the Center’s Cancer Prevention Program. We are gratified, but not surprised, that Riki has been recognized for both her extraordinary accomplishments to date and the potential for her significant scientific contributions yet to come.”