President Obama selects Rutgers cell biologist Nihal Altan-Bonnet to receive prestigious award

July 24, 2012

Fewer than 100 researchers nationwide are chosen each year to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), and this year Dr. Nihal Altan-Bonnet is one of the 96 to receive this honor.

"Dr. Nihal Altan-Bonnet is a superb cell biologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, Newark, pursuing in her research an understanding of viral replication in infected cells," noted Interim Chancellor Philip Yeagle. "That her outstanding research has now attracted one of the highest honors a young scientist in this country can receive gives us here at Rutgers great joy and pride. She is the second member of our faculty to have received this rare honor in the past two years, which speaks to the extraordinary quality of our faculty on the Newark campus of Rutgers University."

Altan-Bonnet, a member of the Rutgers-Newark faculty since 2006, is one of two New Jersey researchers, one from Rutgers and one from Princeton, receiving this year's PECASE award. She has been cited for "research identifying a common lipid blueprint for viral replication and potential panviral therapeutics." She will join the other honorees for a White House ceremony with President Barack Obama this fall.

Nihal Altan-Bonnet, a resident of New York City, received her bachelor of science degree from Hunter College and her doctoral degree in cell biology from The Rockefeller University, both in New York City. Her research has been widely published in academic journals, most recently in Cell, Trends in Biochemical Sciences, Journal of Virology, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Journal of Cell Science, Nature Cell Biology and Molecular Biology of the Cell.

"The viral repertoire on our planet is dominated by RNA (ribonucleic acid) viruses," explains Altan-Bonnet. "Many of them are pathogenic and cause human diseases with major health and socioeconomic consequences such as poliomyelitis, influenza, hepatitis, SARS, AIDS, Ebola and the common cold." (An RNA virus is a virus that has RNA, rather than DNA, as its genetic material.) "Individuals can often be infected with multiple different viruses at a given time. Hence, development of panviral therapeutics is an urgent need in combating these types of multiple viral infections."

Many of the pathogenic RNA viruses use their host cells' intracellular membranes as a platform on which to replicate themselves. With grants from the National Institutes of Health, Altan-Bonnet and her "Host-Pathogen Dynamics" lab group have been studying the molecular nature of these platforms. They have found that viruses, before they start replication, remodel the membranes into their "perfect replication" platform.

Altan-Bonnet has discovered that there is a common membrane blueprint for the perfect replication platform, shared by multiple different viruses including ones that cause the common cold, poliomyelitis and hepatitis C.

Altan-Bonnet and her colleagues have identified critical lipid molecules present within these platforms that viruses rely upon for replication. Having identified these molecules and where they are derived from in the host cell, Altan-Bonnet is now working with industry partners to design and test therapeutics targeting their virus production, that will address panviral effectiveness.

More information on Altan-Bonnet's research is available at http://runewarkbiology.rutgers.edu/department/FacultyProfiles/altan-bonn...

About PECASE

PECASE awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology, and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach. Winning scientists and engineers receive research grants for up to five years to further their studies in support of critical government missions.

In a statement announcing the awards, President Obama said, "Discoveries in science and technology not only strengthen our economy, they inspire us as a people. The impressive accomplishment s of today's awardees so early in their careers promise even greater advances in the years ahead."

Ten federal departments and agencies join together annually to nominate scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America's preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies' missions. Altan-Bonnet was nominated by the National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services.

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President.
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