JeanMarie Houghton, MD, PhD, recognized as one of nation's top young scientists

November 01, 2007

WORCESTER, Mass. --University of Massachusetts Medical School Associate Professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology JeanMarie Houghton, MD, PhD, was recognized today as one of the country's most talented rising scientific stars in a White House ceremony applauding the 2006 recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) Awards. The Presidential Award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers. Granted to a select group of professionals each year, the awards are intended to recognize and nurture some of the finest scientists and engineers who, while early in their research careers, show exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge during the twenty-first century.

"I am absolutely astounded and feel very fortunate to have been chosen for this award," said Dr. Houghton. "It is such a meaningful validation of our work to have our ideas and ambitions recognized at the national level. It demonstrates the faith the government and the National Institutes of Health puts not only in the work of my lab but also in the Medical School as a whole, affirming that this is the right kind of work happening at the right place."

"The outstanding and innovative work of Dr. Houghton demonstrates how young physician-scientists can make breakthrough discoveries by asking the right questions. We are very fortunate and very proud to have her as a member of our team," said Terry R. Flotte, MD, executive deputy chancellor of UMMS and dean of the School of Medicine

A member of the Medical School faculty since 2001, Houghton is broadly interested in the contribution of stem cells to cancer. In 2004, Houghton and colleagues published stunning findings in Science that provided a radically different view of the origins of gastric cancers, identifying an unexpected link between stomach cancer and bone marrow-derived stem cells. The investigators discovered that infection with Helicobacter felis (a bacterium related to Helicobacter plyori, which has long been understood to cause chronic inflammation and cancer in the lining of the stomach) leads to a vast influx of bone marrow-derived stem cells as the body tries to repair the damage caused by the bacterial infection. Houghton and collaborators showed that this flood of bone marrow-derived stem cells can actually lead to the development of stomach cancer.

The PECASE Award was granted based upon the strength of a recent research proposal that builds upon these findings. With the funding support associated with the honor, Houghton aims to further understand the progression of events that leads to the dire consequence of an influx of stem cells. Specifically, the Houghton lab will study the signaling mechanisms that direct the stem cells' actions with the ultimate goal of intervention to coax the cells to differentiate normally, or for those cells that have already metastasized, to develop more targeted treatments that spare healthy cells the detrimental effect of current chemotherapies.

"This award is not only extraordinary prestigious and a unique personal achievement, but is also a most compelling recognition of how Dr. Houghton's work was a catalyst to bringing together so many fields of research and conceptualizing a ground-breaking discovery pivotal for the understanding of human diseases," said Dario C. Altieri, MD, the Eleanor Eustis Farrington Chair in Cancer Research and professor and chair of cancer biology.

Instituted in 1996, the PECASE Awards embody the high priority placed by the government on maintaining the United States' leadership position in science by producing outstanding scientists and engineers who will broadly advance science and the missions important to the participating agencies, which include the National Science Foundation, National Science and Technology Council, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Transportation and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Houghton is just the second UMass Medical School PECASE Award recipient. In 2005, Assistant Professor of Medicine Neal S. Silverman, PhD, was recognized with the award for his research into the mechanisms controlling innate immunity.

"Dr. Houghton's achievements demonstrate the important role played by clinician-scientist; investigators who are able to take care of patents while pursuing ground breaking research studies, Her observation that normal stem cells that migrate to an area of chronic infection can develop into cancer cells, has already had a major impact on our thinking about the nature of the development of cancer. Her studies on the plasticity of stem cells and the effect of the environment will lead to new approaches to preventing and treating cancer in the near future," said UMMS Chair of Medicine Robert W. Finberg, MD, the Richard M. Haidack Professor of Medicine.
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For more information about the PECASE Award, visit http://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/pecase.htm

About the University of Massachusetts Medical School

The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country, has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research. The Medical School attracts more than $176 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. The work of UMMS researcher Craig Mello, PhD, an investigator of the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and his colleague Andrew Fire, PhD, then of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, toward the discovery of RNA interference was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, hailed as the "Breakthrough of the Year" in 2002 by Science magazine and has spawned a new and promising field of research, the global impact of which may prove astounding. UMMS is the academic partner of UMass Memorial Health Care, the largest health care provider in Central Massachusetts. For more information, visit www.umassmed.edu

University of Massachusetts Medical School

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