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Howard Hughes Medical Institute Appoints 43 Investigators Including Two from U of U

March 21, 2005 — The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced today the
selection of its new HHMI investigators, which are, according to HHMI’s news release, “the nation’s most promising biomedical scientists.” Among these prestigious scientists are two University of Utah researchers – Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy, and Erik M. Jorgensen, Ph.D., professor of biology. (See HHMI release for a list of all investigator appointments, bios and photos.)

“We are extremely proud of Alejandro and Erik. A Howard Hughes investigator is one of the highest awards faculty can get in the biomedical field,” states A. Lorris Betz, senior university vice president for health sciences. “This is terrific recognition for two of our very finest biologists and is key in moving forward the concepts of the University’s new Brain Institute.”

Jorgensen’s research focuses on the molecular nature of memory with the goal of identifying the molecules that function at the synapse, the small gap where information flows from one neuron to another. Jorgensen is working to understand how the activities of these molecules are changed to strengthen or weaken a synapse. He was one of the lead biologists at the U who devised a new technique to rapidly determine the job performed by particular genes in laboratory animals, specifically in worms. He and other biologists announced their findings in the September 2001 issue of Nature. The new method, according to Jorgensen, “is a great system for identifying what genes do. Most of the genes in worms are very similar to genes in humans. Studying worms enables scientists to better understand neuronal circuits that give rise to behaviors, particularly the generation of rhythmic behavior.”

Sánchez Alvarado has established Schmidtea mediterranea, a freshwater flatworm, or planaria, as a powerful new model system to study the molecular mechanics of cell regeneration. These creatures are able to grow entirely new body parts when cells are lost to injury or amputation. By identifying and functionally characterizing regeneration at the molecular level, Sánchez Alvarado hopes to gain a better understanding of how higher organisms, including humans, develop biologically.

Erik Jorgensen received his B.S. in animal resources from the University of California, Berkeley, a Ph.D. from the University of Washington in Seattle, and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT before joining the University of Utah’s Biology Department in 1994. He currently serves as the Scientific Director of the Utah Brain Institute at the University of Utah. Jorgensen has received several excellence in teaching awards from the U as well as the Jacob Javits Award from the Institutes of Health and the Damon Runyon Award.

Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado received a B.S. in molecular biology and chemistry from Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. in pharmacology and cell biophysics from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He was a staff associate at the Carnegie Institution Department of Embryology before joining the University of Utah School of Medicine in 2001 as an associate professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy. He won the Marcus Singer Award and an Albert J. Ryan Fellowship Award.

“Both Alejandro and Erik have accomplished much by using lower animal models to better understand the human nervous system,” states Tom Parks, chairman of the Neurobiology and Anatomy Department. “Conventional genetic mapping can take a year or more to identify the performance of a gene, but by analyzing mutant genes in worms the process requires only days.”

HHMI selected their 43 investigators from a highly competitive field of 300 finalists from over 200 universities, medical schools and institutions across the country. Candidates had to demonstrate exceptional promise within four to 10 years of becoming independent scientists. HHMI President Thomas R. Cech stated in today’s release, “These scientists are on the rapidly rising slope of their careers and have made surprising discoveries in a short period of time. We have every reason to believe that they will use their creativity to extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge for many years to come.”

When a university faculty member becomes an HHMI investigator, HHMI takes over the payment of the faculty member’s salary and gives him or her an operations budget for personnel, supplies and equipment and access to a capital equipment fund. The faculty member must retain a university appointment. HHMI investigators continue to be based at their home institutions, typically leading a research group of students, postdoctoral associates and technicians. They also become Institute employees and are supported by field staff throughout the country.

All of HHMI’s investigators announced today must now be formally appointed, a process that will take up to six months. Once formally appointed, Jorgensen and Sánchez Alvarado will join a group of four Howard Hughes investigators already at the U.

Related Web sites:

Sept. 2001: A rapid new way to learn what genes do (Jorgensen):

July 2001: How nerve cells get ready to fire (Jorgensen):

Oct. 2002: Gene prevents ‘brains everywhere’ (Sánchez Alvarado):

Howard Hughes Medical Institute: