Yale scientists awarded $2.5M for work
(7/23/2010) (From New Haven Register)
NEW HAVEN — Haifan Lin, director of the Yale Stem Cell Center, plans to use a $2.5 million prize he won Thursday to study the 60,000 tiny genes he discovered in human cells, each of them only one-hundredth the size of our “normal” genes.
These tiny genes actually control the expression of the 30,000 genes that make up our DNA. “They’re small but mighty,” Lin said.
Lin and Tamas Horvath, chairman of comparative medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, learned Thursday they each had received a 2010 Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health.
Horvath studies metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. He is an expert on how the body’s metabolism affects brain functioning.
The two Yale University scientists were recognized for their “innovative and potentially groundbreaking research,” according to a press release. Each scientist also will receive additional laboratory support over five years, Yale said.
“I’m very happy. I’m very lucky and honored,” Lin said.
Lin and Horvath are among 17 winners of the award this year and, Lin said, the first-ever winners from Yale. Only 83 recipients have been named since the award was created in 2004.
The prize is given to further the work of “individual scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering — and possibly transforming — approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research,” according to the NIH.
“When I heard, I just felt like, wow! It’s like winning the lottery,” Lin said.
A staffer in Horvath’s office said he was out of the country; attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Lin and his team discovered the tiny genes, called piRNA, four years ago. “They could be junk, could be nothing, but in the last two years we showed that these tiny RNAs are very important,” Lin said. They learned that the cellular bodies act as guidance mechanisms for larger genes that determine our individual characteristics.
Lin said it’s a potentially huge advance toward understanding the mechanism behind cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
He said the discovery made him feel like “these people in Europe who discovered the New World, and we are only at the seashore of the New World” of cell biology, he said.
Horvath, head of the Program on Integrative Cell Signaling and the Neurobiology of Metabolism, is an expert on the effects of metabolism on higher brain functions. His work has focused on neurological diseases such Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes. His lab was the first to show that the brain uses fat as fuel, Yale said.
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