SEATTLE – May 19, 2015 – Sue Biggins, Ph.D., a geneticist and biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who studies the machinery that dividing cells use to ensure their daughter cells receive the correct allotment of chromosomes, has been selected to become a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. She is among 26 of the nation’s top biomedical scientists to receive the honor this year out of a pool of nearly 900 applicants.
Biggins, who also was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, has been a member of Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division for 15 years and serves as its associate director. Her research led to an important contribution to the study of how cells divide by discovering how specialized “cellular machines” known as kinetochores allow cells to separate and distribute their chromosomes precisely. This shuffling of chromosomes from mother to daughter cells must happen accurately with every cell division — mistakes in chromosome segregation are a hallmark of cancer cells and genetic defects that can lead to miscarriage.
“She can see the big picture and get right to the key questions,” said Jonathan Cooper, Ph.D., director of the Basic Sciences Division at Fred Hutch. “She's an exemplar of the Hutch philosophy of individual thinking and passion for science.”
Biggins and her team succeeded in isolating the kinetochores from dividing yeast cells – whose kinetochores function like those of human cells – studying them in test tubes for the first time. That accomplishment was transformative for Biggins and the field, allowing her and her colleagues to uncover molecular and physical characteristics of the kinetochore that had never before been revealed.
Because kinetochores play such an important role in chromosome segregation, knowing how they work turns them into large therapeutic targets. If research leads to drugs that disrupt kinetochores from doing their job in unhealthy cells, they would be unable to divide and propagate at all, stopping a disease such as cancer.
“Scientific discovery requires original thinking and creativity,” said HHMI President Robert Tjian, Ph.D. “Every scientist selected has demonstrated these qualities. One of the most important things we can do at HHMI is to continue to support and encourage the best discovery research. We don’t know this for certain, but the ideas that emerge from these labs might one day change the world, and it’s our privilege to help make that happen.”
Biggins’ initial five-year appointment as an HHMI investigator, which will begin in September, comes with a salary, benefits and a research budget. HHMI also will cover additional expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment. The appointment may be renewed for additional five-year terms, each contingent upon a successful scientific review.
Biggins earned her Ph.D. from Princeton University. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco, she joined Fred Hutch in 2000 as a genetics and biology researcher.
The roster of HHMI-funded researchers from Fred Hutch includes an Early Career Scientist, four current investigators, including Biggins and Nobel laureate Linda B. Buck, Ph.D.; and eight investigator alumni. Biggins also joins eight Fred Hutch researchers who have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
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