Fred Hutch postdoctoral fellow Dr. Matthew Miller has received the Damon Runyon-Dale F. Frey Award for Breakthrough Scientists, an award conferred to six recipients this year. The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation announced the award last week.
Miller, a postdoctoral fellow working in the lab of Fred Hutch scientist Dr. Sue Biggins, had received a four-year Damon Runyon Fellowship from the same foundation in 2014. The “breakthrough scientist” awards are given to researchers at the end of their fellowships who “have greatly exceeded the Foundation’s highest expectations and are most likely to make paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that transform the way we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer,” the foundation said in a statement.
The award comes with $100,000 in research funding that is meant to be used as a bridge between a postdoctoral fellowship and launching an independent lab, Miller said. He studies how cells correctly partition the right number of chromosomes to each daughter cell during cell division, a process that can go awry in cancer and is the leading cause of miscarriages.
Specifically, Miller studies components of the kinetochore. It's a large protein complex that attaches each chromosome to “molecular strings,” known as microtubules, which pull the chromosomes to each daughter cell. The entire process is intricately timed and controlled by physical tension. Miller and Biggins found that in brewer’s yeast, a protein known as Stu2 is responsible for sensing that tension.
It’s not clear how Stu2 does that job, Miller said — that will be the next phase of his work, which could continue into the new laboratory he plans to establish in the next few years. But the human version of Stu2, ch-TOG, has been implicated in several different cancers. Miller also wants to study the mutations in that gene that crop up in cancer to see if they affect the protein’s tension-sensing function.
The new award is especially meaningful to Miller because the Damon Runyon Foundation is committed to funding basic research by early-stage investigators.
“That’s pretty amazing, because I completely agree that these big breakthroughs that are more directly connected to cancer would not happen without the foundational research that all those studies stand on,” Miller said. “I feel very fortunate to have been funded by them and to continue to be.”
Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.