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News & Notes

Partnership yields new graduate education program

Mary Ann Handel, Ph.D.

The Jackson Laboratory is teaming up with Tufts University's Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences and School of Medicine to offer a new mammalian genetics program for Ph.D. students. The joint program offers students access to the combined faculty and resources at Tufts and the Laboratory, providing them with top-flight instruction from human disease, mouse genetics, bioinformatics and other perspectives.

"Combining our institutional strengths with Tufts' provides unparalleled opportunities to leverage mouse models to investigate normal human biology and disease," says Jackson Laboratory Senior Research Scientist Mary Ann Handel, Ph.D., who is director of the Cooperative Predoctoral Training Program. The flexible track will allow students to "take advantage of the best of each institution," Handel says.

"These experiences give students a special appreciation for the genetic diseases that affect people," says Erik Selsing, Ph.D., associate professor of Pathology and director of the genetics graduate program at Tufts. "It will ultimately help to foster the collaborative research that will bring us closer to linking basic science research to cures for disease and the development of personalized medicine."

Laboratory launches ALS mouse repository

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It is almost always fatal within a decade of diagnosis.

Now, with funding provided from three sources, The Jackson Laboratory is establishing a national ALS mouse model repository. The repository will provide a vital resource for ALS researchers and make mouse models readily available to the scientific community.

Funding the effort are The Tow Foundation, the ALS Association and the ALS Therapy Alliance. The importance of the repository is underscored by recent discoveries that have expanded the number of genes potentially involved in ALS. These discoveries offer new hope for therapeutic intervention, but it's crucial that new mouse models based on them are of the highest quality.

"ALS mice have been notoriously difficult to work with, with different scientists getting different results," says the Laboratory's Cathleen Lutz, Ph.D., associate director for the Genetic Resource Science Repository. "It turns out that a lot of those problems were due to variability in the mice themselves. Now that there are new genes of interest, we want to ensure that those mouse models are stable."

Laboratory coordinating Maine Science Fair

Around the United States, 49 state science fairs were scheduled for this school year. The lone state without one was Maine. Its science fair, held annually for more than 60 years, was languishing because of funding problems.

For Randy Smith, Ph.D., The Jackson Laboratory's director of Educational Programs, this was unacceptable. "We feel strongly that Maine cannot be the only state without a science fair," he says. So, to continue its mission of educating the next generation of scientists, the Laboratory took over coordination of the Maine State Science Fair.

The fair will be held on April 30 at the Mount Desert Island Regional High School in Bar Harbor. Ultimately, Smith is working to further expand the horizons of Maine's best science students, providing fair winners with the opportunity to participate in the Intel International Science Fair. "It may take two to three years, but when we reach this goal," Smith says, "Maine State Science Fair students will be able to represent their state in this prestigious international science competition."

High efficiency energy plant under way

The best way to heat buildings is to use a fuel source that is both local and renewable, and to burn it efficiently. The Jackson Laboratory is on its way to meeting all three of these goals.

The Laboratory is installing a new energy plant that will be the first of its kind in the United States. It will combust sustainably harvested wood pellets instead of fossil fuels, resulting in the reduction of at least 13,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, as well as the consumption of about 1.2 million gallons of fuel oil annually. That imported oil will be replaced with "Maine-grown, Maine-harvested, Maine-processed and Maine-delivered renewable wood product," according to John Fitzpatrick, senior director, Facilities Services.

"Being located on such a special place as Mount Desert Island, and specifically bordering one of Maine's treasures, Acadia National Park," he says, "we take our roles as temporary stewards of The Jackson Laboratory's facilities and the surrounding environment to heart."

Rick Woychik to work for NIEHS

Outgoing Jackson Laboratory President and CEO Richard Woychik, Ph.D., announced in November that his next endeavor would be in the public sector. He left in January to become the deputy director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

"It has been a great honor to serve The Jackson Laboratory," Woychik said at the time of his announcement. "I will miss the many fine people who have contributed to the Laboratory's success during my time here, and I am confident that the institution will continue to grow and prosper."

At NIEHS, Woychik will be charged with creating a strategic plan for the agency and helping to manage its programs and operations. The mission of NIEHS is to reduce the burden of human illness and disability by understanding how the environment influences the development and progression of human disease.

A national search for Woychik's replacement is ongoing. Charles Hewett, Ph.D., executive vice president, and Robert Braun, Ph.D., associate director and chair of research, are handling leadership responsibilities on an interim basis.

How egg development is controlled

The timing mechanism female mammals possess for their egg cells is nothing short of amazing. And thanks to research led by Jackson Laboratory Professor John Eppig, Ph.D., we now know far more about how that mechanism works.

Immature egg cells, known as oocytes, are stored inside ovaries. Only a very few at a time (in humans usually only one) develop into fully mature eggs. But how do they stay in a holding pattern, most for many years, and only ready themselves for fertilization at precisely the right moment? What keeps them from undergoing meiosis—the process that reduces their chromosomes by half—until they are released and can meet with sperm for fertilization?

What Eppig and his team discovered was an exquisitely orchestrated sequence of signals between the oocytes and other nearby cells within ovarian follicles. The signaling holds the oocytes in what is known as meiotic arrest from birth through ovulation. Any disruption in the timing can impede fertility. Eppig says further research in his lab will explore the mechanism behind resumption of meiosis when the signal comes (called the luteinizing hormone surge) that triggers ovulation. A better understanding of meiotic processes could provide the basis for future fertility treatments or contraceptives or avoid the problems that cause birth defects.

Chengkai Dai wins NIH award

Setting out to look at scientific problems from a new perspective is risky. But it can bring significant rewards.

Assistant Professor Chengkai Dai, M.D., Ph.D., was named in September as a 2010 New Innovator Award recipient by Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. New Innovator Awards provide $2.7 million over five years to the nation's most innovative new investigators. They are designed specifically to support the research ideas of unusually creative investigators early in their in their careers. Collins announced the awards at the start of the Sixth Annual NIH Director's Pioneer Award Symposium.

Dai joined The Jackson Laboratory faculty at the end of 2008. He is bringing a new perspective Leading the search for tomorrow's cures 7 to research into heat shock proteins, a family of proteins that normally protect healthy cells from environmental stress. They offer cancer cells the same protection, which is important for allowing them to grow and divide very rapidly. Dai is seeking ways to adjust the response so that cancer cells die from the stress of their own growth and expansion.

Doug Coleman wins Lasker Award

Diet and exercise help determine our weight, but our genes play a significant role too.

Coleman, now a professor emeritus at the Laboratory, has received several awards for his research. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1998, won the 2005 Gairdner Foundation Award and received the 2009 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine. The latest, and perhaps most prestigious, is the 2010 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. As with the Shaw Prize, he shared the award with Jeffrey Friedman, Ph.D., of Rockefeller University, who built upon Coleman's work.

"I have always viewed the Lasker Award as one of the most esteemed biomedical awards, and it is with great pride that I accept this honor," Coleman said. "I was especially delighted to learn that I would be sharing this award with Jeffrey Friedman, who always acknowledged my earlier contributions to our field." The Lasker Awards, widely regarded as the "Nobel Prizes of America," carry a $250,000 honorarium. Since 1945 the Lasker Awards program has recognized the contributions of scientists, physicians and public servants internationally who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure and prevention of human disease.