White House honors Hutchinson Center Scientist with Presidential Early Career Award

April 10, 2000

Dr. Cecilia Moens' work with zebrafish represents new wave of research that may shed new light on the genetics of cancer and craniofacial defects

When Cecilia Moens, Ph.D., describes her passion for zebrafish as a model of genetics, phrases such as "spawning all over the place" and "casting around" roll off her tongue without a hint of irony. It's hardly surprising that fishy phrases pepper her speech, considering that Moens is surrounded by 15,000 of the little black-and-white-striped creatures in her tank-lined laboratory at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Moens' work with zebrafish, a relatively new model of vertebrate developmental biology, may shed new light on the genetics of cancer as well as craniofacial defects. In recognition of her contributions to this new field, President Clinton today announced that Moens has been selected as a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE. The award is described by the White House as the nation's highest honor for young professionals at the beginning of their research careers.

Moens is among 60 researchers nationwide who will accept the honor at 2 p.m. EST tomorrow at the White House. Other Seattle winners include the University of Washington's David W. Russell, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine; and Nate Mantua, a climate scientist (please see editor's note for more information).

Eight federal departments together nominate the recipients of this annual award; the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, selected Moens for the honor.

"I'm delighted to have been chosen for this award -- it's a very great honor to receive this kind of recognition so early in my career. It's a testament to the broad-mindedness of the people at the National Institutes of Health that they recognize the relevance of zebrafish developmental biology to human development and disease," says Moens, an assistant member of the Hutchinson Center's Basic Sciences Division and an affiliate faculty member in the UW Department of Zoology.

Established by President Clinton in 1996, the PECASE is intended to identify and support scientists and engineers who demonstrate potential to provide the vision and leadership necessary to preserve the nation's world leadership in science and technology research. Those selected receive five-year research grants from their nominating institution.

While scientists for nearly a century have been using the fruit fly and mouse as models of developmental genetics, only recently have they considered the zebrafish as a model of vertebrate embryonic development.

Moens studies the zebrafish, she says, not only because it lends itself to the practice of classical genetics (inducing random mutations in one generation and then studying the effects of those mutations on subsequent generations), but because it offers an unrestricted view of the developing embryo.

Moens' eyes light up when she talks about the thrill of watching a ball of cells transform within hours into a distinct, structurally sophisticated organism. "Development in general, but zebrafish development in particular, is beautiful to watch," she says.

Because zebrafish embryos are transparent -- almost as clear as glass -- and grow outside their mothers, they are well-suited to such scientific voyeurism.

"You can look at live zebrafish embryos under a microscope and watch individual cells develop - that's a hugely powerful advantage over other models of vertebrate development, such as the mouse," she says.

The complexity of the genetic coding that drives zebrafish development also drives Moens in her daily work. Her goal: to understand the genetic signals responsible for the development of the zebrafish brain.

Moens' research focuses on the hindbrain, which in the zebrafish embryo resembles a segmented worm. She wants to know how those segments form and how the cells they contain become grouped according to function, from controlling motor activity to patterning the development of the head.

But what does hindbrain development in the zebrafish have to do with understanding cancer? Plenty.

A mutant gene responsible for hindbrain defects in the zebrafish has a genetic counterpart in chicks that not only affects brain segmentation but also causes cancer. Indeed, many of the genes necessary for embryonic development, which are meant to lie dormant during adulthood, are the same ones that later mutate and produce uncontrolled cell growth in cancer.

"Development is a process that includes cell differentiation, cell growth, cell division and cell death - many of the same processes that are going wrong during cancer growth," she says. "So it stands to reason that many of the developmental control genes we identify by using zebrafish as a model ultimately are going to be involved in cancer development."

Another potential spinoff of Moens' work may be a better understanding of the genetics behind craniofacial defects, because the same genes that orchestrate hindbrain development also affect the brain's neural crest cells, which are responsible for developing the artchitecture and nerves of the head and neck. The arrival of Moens and her fish at the Hutchinson Center in 1998 greatly enhanced the Northwest's reputation as a hub of zebrafish activity, a reputation established by the groundbreaking work of researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Oregon, where she completed her postdoctoral work.

Moens is the second researcher from the Hutchinson Center to receive the award. Last year, Effie Petersdorf, M.D., of the Center's Clinical Research Division was honored for her work in human immunogenetics.
Editor's note: For color photos of Moens or more information about her work, contact Kristen Woodward, 206-667-5095. For more information about the University of Washington winners, contact Sandra Hines, 206-543-2580 (regarding Mantua); or Walter Neary, 206-685-3841 (regarding Russell). For more information about the PECASE awards, contact Richard Kostro in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, 202-456-6108, or at rkostro@ostp.eop.gov.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is an independent, nonprofit research institution dedicated to the development and advancement of biomedical technology to eliminate cancer and other potentially fatal diseases. Recognized internationally for its pioneering work in bone-marrow transplantation, the Center's four scientific divisions collaborate to form a unique environment for conducting basic and applied science. The Hutchinson Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in the Pacific Northwest. For more information, visit the Center's Web site at <http://www.fhcrc.org>.

Advancing knowledge, saving lives

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

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