“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.
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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
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
June Round, a 2013 Pew scholar and assistant professor of Pathology at the University of Utah, has been awarded the 2013 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering. As one of 16 scientists selected to receive the $875,000 grant, Round will focus her research on bacteria in the gut—working to identify strategies to kill the disease-causing kind while maintaining “good” kind.More info
Deborah Hung, a 2007 Pew scholar, was featured in a podcast by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America called “Changing the way we think about antibiotics”. As an assistant professor at the Richard B. Simches Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, Hung’s work explores new avenues to treat and diagnose infectious diseases like tuberculosis.More info
This month, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced, directing global attention to the importance of chemical studies. The winners—Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel—were recognized for developing some of the first computer models for complex systems of molecules.More info
Winrich Freiwald, a 2010 Pew scholar and assistant professor at The Rockefeller University, is one of seven scientists receiving $1.5 million for cutting-edge neuroscience research as he establishes his laboratory. Past awardees include Vanessa Ruta, a 2012 Pew scholar and assistant professor at Rockefeller.More info
"The Pew Charitable Trusts last March named Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Qiaobing Xu a Pew Scholar for his biomedical research on a new method of promoting nerve growth."More info
Mark Andermann, a 2013 Pew Scholar and assistant professor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, conducts innovative research to determine the changes in the brain triggered by hunger and external food cues. Watch the video to learn more about how his work is shedding light on obesity and eating disorders.More info
The Daily Californian ran an article covering the research of Diana Bautista, a 2009 Pew scholar and assistant professor at University of California, Berkeley, who led in research discovering a way to relieve the itch of eczema and ward off some of its worst symptoms. The study, published in Cell, demonstrated that blocking the activity of nerve cells in the skin could stop the itch and inflammation associated with the condition—which affects 10 percent of the population.More info
2011 Pew biomedical scholar Michael Kuhns studies the processes leading to immunity in vertebrates and researches how cells communicate with each other to induce the appropriate immune response to an invading pathogen or a vaccine.More info
Qioabing Xu, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Tufts University, has identified a method to use organic collagen to create replacement nerve tissue. His innovations differs from most similar nerve-repair mechanisms, which use expensive inorganic materials.More info