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Indian-Americans win clinical scientist award

April 11, 2007 02:48 IST





The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has named 11 physician-scientists including Jayakrishna Ambati of the University of Kentucky and Pradeep Singh, of the University of Washington, as the 2007 recipients of its clinical scientist awards in translational research.

The $750,000 each awards are intended to support established, independent physician-scientists who are dedicated to translational research -- the two-way transfer between laboratory research and patient treatment -- and mentoring physician-scientist trainees.

The awards give them the freedom and flexibility to explore scientific questions, apply the resulting knowledge at the bedside and bring insights from the clinical setting back to the laboratory for further study.

The fund will provide $150,000 a year over five years. Candidates must have an MD or MD-PhD degree and hold an appointment or joint appointment in a subspecialty of clinical medicine.

'We hope these awards will lead to better understanding of the mechanisms of disease as well as new methods of diagnosing, treating and preventing disease,' said BWF President Enriqueta C Bond, adding that BWF is particularly interested in supporting physician-scientists who bring novel ideas and new approaches to translational research.

Ambati was selected for his work on suppression of blood vessel growth; and Singh, for his research on the use of gallium, which disrupts bacterial iron metabolism and thus helps in fighting germs and the production of biological films.

Angiogenesis is the formation of new blood vessels from pre-existing vessels. In macular degeneration, angiogenesis results in the destruction of cells required for vision.

Ambati's lab has earlier found compounds that could influence angiogenesis. The findings have far-reaching implications beyond ophthalmology and into all areas of medicine because angiogenesis is also the process by which other growths spread in the body, including malignant tumors. The work has opened the door into methods of controlling angiogenesis and its effects.

Currently, many types of bacteria have developed resistance to conventional antibiotics. In the search for new weapons, Ambati and his team have stumbled on gallium.

Singh's study found that a common bacterium mistakes galliumfor iron, which it needs for survival. With the consumption of gallium, which does not performs iron's functions, it gradually dies, the study found.

Gallium is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so the work could lead to a new class of quick-to-the-market antimicrobial drugs.

One of the team's targets is pseudomonas aeruginosa -- a typical bacterium that resists antibiotics. It is the leading cause of death in cystic fibrosis patients. It attacks those with weakened immune systems, growing in large numbers in wounds and covering itself with a protective, drug-resistant layer, called a biofilm. But it needs iron to synthesize DNA, move energy around, and protect itself from poisonous oxidation.

But gallium can harm human kidneys when taken intravenously, so it is too early for use in humans, Singh cautioned.

Unlike other antibiotics, the metal does not attract resistance because its mode of attack is so broad. This quality promises an alternative to the current antimicrobials, he said.

Gallium is already used to treat high calcium levels in the blood caused by cancer, and that could speed its course through drug trials.

'My lab and I are honored to be recognized with the prestigious Burroughs Wellcome award,' said Ambati, associate professor of ophthalmology and vice chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at University of Kentucky.

Daniel Hassett, a microbiologist at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, felt Singh, associate professor of medicine and microbiology division of pulmonary and critical care medicine, and his colleagues are on to something. The medical world apparently agrees.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, is an independent, private foundation dedicated to advancing the medical sciences by supporting research and other scientific and educational activities.

George Joseph in New York