Two Harvard faculty members were among eight noted investigators recently awarded the prestigious Senator Jacob Javits Award in the Neurosciences. Associate Professor of Surgery Jeffrey Macklis at the Medical School and Andrew P. McMahon, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, were honored for their research. The prize provides for up to seven years of research funding from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). A component of the National Institutes of Health, NINDS is the nation’s primary federal sponsor of research on the brain and nervous system.
Authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1983, the award honors the late Sen. Jacob K. Javits, who was a strong advocate for research on a variety of neurological disorders. Javits suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disabling neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The award is presented to investigators who have demonstrated exceptional scientific excellence and productivity in research areas supported by NINDS and who are expected to conduct cutting-edge research over the next seven years. It provides guaranteed funding for four years, after which three additional years may be awarded pending receipt and approval of additional information. Investigators are nominated by NINDS staff, on the recommendation of the National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stroke Council, from among a pool of competing grant applicants during a given grants cycle. An investigator may receive the award only once, a policy that began in 1996.
Macklis has made significant contributions to the understanding of neuronal replacement and cellular repair of the brain following injury. His research shows that, contrary to previously held beliefs, the reconstruction of complex networks in the brain’s cerebral cortex can be achieved in adulthood. Using a method that he pioneered, Macklis was the first investigator to demonstrate that, following localized injury, the adult mammalian precortex can be repopulated by new neurons. Some of these new nerve cells send axonal projections long distances into target regions and could potentially contribute to the restoration of function. In his most recent research proposal, Macklis hopes to identify the best conditions for the integration of neurons into existing networks of the somatosensory cortex, which receives tactile information from the body. His findings may lead to the development of cell replacement therapies to treat brain disorders.
A leader in the field of developmental biology and co-discoverer of the signaling protein named Sonic hedgehog (Shh), McMahon has made seminal contributions to the understanding of signal transduction pathways that control brain and spinal cord development. His research has established paradigms in the areas of embryonic pattern formation and axon guidance in the mouse and chick, providing a foundation for understanding and treating developmental neurological disorders and certain tumors. His Javits-winning research proposal – which combines embryonic manipulations possible in the chick with genetic methods available in the mouse – will advance our understanding of the development of the neural tube and spinal cord precursor cells, provide insight into Shh-linked tumors, and identify candidate molecular targets for therapeutic intervention for disorders that disturb patterning and cell proliferation.