Two Center researchers win Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute awards

Drs. Harmit Malik and Toshiyasu Taniguchi are among 50 scientists nationwide to win appointments as Early Career Scientists
Drs. Harmit Malik and Toshiyasu Taniguchi
Dr. Harmit Malik is an evolutionary biologist in the Basic Sciences Division. Dr. Toshiyasu Taniguchi is a cancer geneticist in the Human Biology and Public Health Sciences divisions. Photos by Susie Fitzhugh (left) and Dean Forbes

Last Thursday, Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute announced that the Hutchinson Center's Drs. Harmit Malik and Toshiyasu Taniguchi are among 50 scientists nationwide to win appointments as HHMI Early Career Scientists.

Malik, of the Basic Sciences Division, and Taniguchi, of the Human Biology and Public Health Sciences divisions, each will receive a six-year appointment to the HHMI and, along with it, the freedom to explore their best ideas without worrying about where to find the money to fund the work. Each will receive $1.5 million during their appointments. The Institute will also cover other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment.

“These scientists are at the early stage of their careers, when they are full of energy and not afraid to try something new,” said Jack Dixon, HHMI vice president and chief scientific officer. “They have already demonstrated that they are not apt to play it safe —and we hope they will continue to do something really original.”

Malik, an evolutionary biologist, sees conflicts 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. Malik 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. For example, to explore why humans are susceptible to HIV, Malik and his colleagues resurrected an extinct retrovirus that infected chimps and gorillas, but not humans, 4 million years ago. Malik’s research suggests that we may be vulnerable to HIV infection because our defenses evolved to fight off other viruses instead. Recently, Malik and colleagues have shown that host proteins can evolve to defeat “viral mimicry,” providing yet another nuance to a never-ending “arms race” between hosts and viruses.

As a physician in Tokyo, Taniguchi treated many lymphoma patients with DNA-damaging chemotherapy, only to watch the drugs lose their power as the tumors developed resistance. He then became a researcher in cancer genetics to find ways to save more patients. At the Hutchinson Center, Taniguchi studies the role of DNA repair in promoting drug resistance in cancer cells. He identified a repair pathway that is often inactivated in patients with breast and ovarian cancers, as well as the childhood predisposition to cancer known as Fanconi anemia. Reactivation of the pathway, he discovered, can help tumors become resistant to chemotherapy drugs. Taniguchi intends to dig deeper into this mechanism of drug resistance and use the information he uncovers to develop drugs that will resensitize tumors to cancer therapies.

Malik and Taniguchi will begin their six-year, nonrenewable HHMI appointments in September 2009. The Institute anticipates another Early Career Scientist competition in 2012.

In addition to Malik and Taniguchi, the Hutchinson Center is home to four current HHMI investigators.

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