Two Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine scientists, Jeffrey Savas and Arun Sharma, are winners of the 2015 Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards. Sharma is also Director of Surgical Research and a member of the Developmental Biology Program at Stanley Manne Children's Research Institute at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
Savas, an assistant professor of neurology, won for a project to correct hampered synapses in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Sharma, a research assistant professor in urology, won for his proposal to develop new treatments for Crohn’s disease in children.
Each year, The Hartwell Foundation invites a limited number of institutions in the U.S. to nominate faculty members who are involved in early-stage, cutting-edge biomedical research that has not qualified for significant funding from outside sources. The award provides $100,000 in annual direct costs for three years. Twelve individuals representing nine institutions received recognition as Hartwell Investigators. Northwestern was one of only three institutions receiving two awards. This marks the third year in a row that a researcher affiliated with Northwestern and with the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute has received this honor.
“The 2015 competition was very competitive. The proposal by Savas was indicative of strong representation in neurobiology this year. The proposal by Sharma was also quite compelling, with exciting potential for benefitting children,” said Fred Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation.
The goal of Savas’s research is to investigate proteins in particular brain synapses that may be linked to autism spectrum disorder. (Synapses are specialized junctions between two or more nerve cells.) “This research on mouse models of autism aims to provide new knowledge to accelerate the development of effective therapeutics to treat children with ASD,” he said. “My proposal represents a pioneering effort and will be the first investigation to determine how specific synapses are perturbed and reformed in ASD.”
Savas said he will combine genetic, chemical and mass spectrometry-based methods into a new approach that facilitates probing the particular molecules present at individual synapses.
Autism spectrum disorder comprises a group of brain development disorders characterized by significant deficits in social communication and social interaction. Children with ASD also have an increased risk of intellectual disabilities, epilepsy and attention deficit disorder. Approximately 1 in 68 children is affected by ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
It is believed that ASD represents a heterogeneous collection of disorders caused by the mutation of multiple genes that function within common brain pathways. Recent genetic research suggests that proteins in brain synapses play a key role in the pathology of ASD, where altered functionality in synapses can lead to disturbances in neural circuits, which ultimately contribute to impaired behaviors and pathology. Understanding the underlying mechanism of altered synapse function could provide possible targets for drug therapy.
“As a new father, being chosen for this award is particularly meaningful to me since the mission of The Hartwell Foundation is to fund projects with the potential to benefit children,” Savas said. “Early career awards like The Hartwell are hugely important to junior faculty members like myself since they provide research support to obtain the preliminary data needed to secure sustained funding through the National Institutes of Health.”
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