Diana Bautista, a 2009 Pew scholar and assistant professor of molecular and cell biology at University of California, Berkeley, was featured in a segment of Morning Edition, explaining the vibrating sensation we experience when we eat Sichuan peppers. Her research on the nerve cells involved in the response to spicy food could unveil possible treatments for tingling and numbing paresthesia, or chronic “pins and needles.”More info
“Larschan’s work has already distinguished her as a scientific pioneer…”
“It was so exciting,” Larschan says of the effort, which began in 1990 and was completed in 2003. Scientists on the project “thought they were going to have everything figured out,” she recalls.
Larschan began figuring out her own path while pursuing an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Wellesley College and working summers in a cancer lab at Harvard Medical School. And in earning a Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard and continuing training at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Larschan discerned the fate of her research goals: to uncover connections between gene expression and disease.
She now runs her own research lab focusing on transcription factors, molecules that bind to DNA sequences. In so doing, they orchestrate which genes are turned on and which are silenced in various cells types and under an array of conditions, such as health and disease.
As one of the 22 early-career scientists named Pew Biomedical Scholars in 2011, Larschan studies the role of transcription factors in a phenomenon that allows male organisms to survive with only one X chromosome. While females have two copies of the X chromosome, males have one X and one Y chromosome, which houses only genes associated with male fertility.
At first blush, the males’ lack of a second X chromosome ought to be lethal. Human cells have 46 chromosomes—two sex chromosomes and 22 paired sets of so-called somatic chromosomes, which contain genes related to non-reproductive bodily systems. Organisms need both copies of each somatic chromosome pair to live.
So what keeps males alive in the absence of a backup X chromosome? In a telling model, male fruit flies manufacture a specialized transcription factor called MSL (short for male-specific lethal—as they would die without it).
This, Larschan’s lab has discovered, enables them to double the genetic expression from their sole X chromosome—an advantage that might also appear in human males. Her group employs novel techniques to measure the moment-to-moment activity of genes on fruit flies’ X-chromosomes. MSL, they’ve found, helps enzymes to copy those genes.
If—in the distant future—that discovery proves applicable to humans, Larschan foresees that biomedical scientists might better understand and one day treat diseases such as cancer or schizophrenia, which are associated with abnormal gene regulation.
But for now, Larschan’s work has already distinguished her as a scientific pioneer, earning her a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2012. That honor, bestowed by the President, recognizes researchers who take risks at the frontiers of science and technology.
Larschan passes that same eagerness to innovate on to her students. For instance, she teaches a transcription seminar which zeroes in on an initial step of the mechanism that allows all cells to create proteins from the blueprints in their genes.
In exposing genetics’ next frontier to her students, Larschan hopes to share the excitement for science the Human Genome Project instilled in her—and that her Pew award now nurtures. “It’s fun to get people started on a career in scientific inquiry,” she says.
See more profiles here.
Since 1985, Pew’s biomedical programs have been supporting promising beginning researchers in the health sciences—particularly young investigators with innovative approaches and ideas. This article is the second in a “Biomedical Researcher of the Month” series highlighting Pew’s biomedical programs.
- Date added:
- Jan 22, 2013
In January, Antonio Giraldez, a 2008 Pew Scholar, was awarded the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science for his research on the role of microRNAs in the early developmental stages of vertebrates.More info
The sensation of feeling itchy is pretty universal, and yet scientists still don't completely understand the complex processes that give us the urge to scratch.More info
Two BU researchers will travel to Washington, D.C., later this year to accept the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), one of the highest honors for young science and engineering professionals.More info
In October, 2013 Pew scholar Shelly Peyton won the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, a five-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. With the funds, the assistant professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is focusing on cancer spread—and the possibility that some cancer treatments might speed up the process.More info
Wired magazine has compiled a list of the year’s best scientific visualizations—including an image by 2013 Pew scholar Viviana Gradinaru. In collaboration with other researchers at California Institute of Technology, the assistant professor created a technique to make fatty tissues translucent and color-coded for easier study.More info
Mark Davis, a 1985 Pew scholar and director of Stanford University’s Institute for Immunity Transplantation and Infection, is featured in US News & World Report for his research on how men and women respond differently to influenza vaccines. His study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to demonstrate a correlation between testosterone levels, gene expression, and immune responsiveness in humans.More info
1996 Pew scholar Carolyn Bertozzi, the T.Z. and Irmgard Chu Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, has been elected into the National Academy of Inventors for her contributions to the field of chemistry. Bertozzi’s innovations include copper-free click chemistry, a technique for examining sugars on cell surfaces without doing harm to the cell.More info
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, on Nov. 25 named 338 new fellows, including Pew biomedical scholars James Bliska (1994), M. Bishr Omary (1989), and Richard Padgett (1986). AAAS fellows are selected based on their demonstrated efforts to advance science or its applications.More info
Gregory Amberg, a 2010 Pew scholar and assistant professor of biomedical sciences at Colorado State University, has won a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how high blood pressure develops in people with obesity. With the five-year award, Amberg hopes to identify the underlying causes for the cardiovascular disease, with the aim of developing therapies to prevent its organ-damaging effects.More info
Manu Prakash, a 2013 Pew scholar and assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, has been awarded a Grand Challenges Explorations Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As one of 81 winners selected from more than 2,700 proposals, Prakash’s team will develop an inexpensive electromagnetic detection device to diagnose infections of parasitic worms in people.More info