Stem cell researcher honored by President George W. Bush

5 min read

Kevin Eggan receives Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering in White House ceremony

Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) scientist Kevin Eggan today was cited by President George W. Bush for his work in advancing the field of stem cell science on both scientific and educational levels.

Eggan received a Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering (PECASE)  “… for developing new approaches for reprogramming of patient cells into pluripotent stem cells and for developing and teaching new undergraduate curriculum in stem cell science.”

The assistant professor in Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and HSCI principal faculty member received the award from Bush in a ceremony this afternoon in the Eisenhower Executive Building, next door to the White House.

“I don’t know what to say,” Eggan, a Stowers Medical Institute Investigator, said. “I’m honored and excited to have received this award and pleased to have met the president.”

The award extends Eggan’s current National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant for an additional five years, which will provide his lab with approximately $1 million in funding over that period. Eggan was one of 68 scientists from around the nation named to receive a PECASE award. The awards, first given in 1996, go to young investigators considered outstanding in their field by the various federal agencies funding their research. According to the White House, the awards fund “research in support of critical government missions.”

Eggan’s iPS cellular reprogramming work also received recognition this week from the journal Science and Time Magazine. Time named Eggan’s creation of iPS cell lines produced from the skin cells of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) the top “medical breakthrough” of 2008. And Science included work lead by Eggan, HSCI co-director Doug Melton, and HSCI principal faculty members George Daley, Konrad Hochedlinger, and Chad Cowan in its “Breakthrough of the Year: Reprogramming Cells.”

“The recognition being accorded these HSCI scientists who are advancing the field of regenerative medicine with stunning regularity is richly deserved,” said Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman. “Kevin Eggan, Doug Melton, George Daley, Konrad Hochedlinger and their colleagues are more than fulfilling the promises made with the creation of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute by bringing path breaking fundamental research to bear on problems of health.

“This year, scientists achieved a long-sought feat of cellular alchemy,” begins the Science article. “They took skin cells from patients suffering from a variety of diseases and reprogrammed them into stem cells. The transformed cells grow and divide in the laboratory, giving researchers new tools to study the cellular processes that underlie the patients’ diseases. The achievement could also be an important step on a long path to treating diseases with a patient’s own cells.”

In addition to his ALS breakthrough published in July, which he achieved in collaboration with researchers at HSCI and Columbia University, Eggan and colleagues recently published a paper in which they announced having used an embryonic stem cell line to produce the kind of motor neurons that die in patients with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Scientists will now be able to study that fatal, degenerative disease in a laboratory dish, and have an endless supply of cells upon which to test potential treatments.

Referring to the recognition from Time and Science, Eggan said, “Given all the amazing progress this year, it’s terrific for all of us to be selected, and it’s wonderful recognition of the strength of HSCI.”

In the work singled out by Time and Science, Daley, Hochedlinger, Cowan, and colleagues produced 20 disease-specific stem cell lines using iPS technology. Those lines, along with Eggan’s and others’, are being stored in an HSCI iPS Core based at Massachusetts General Hospital, and will be made available at cost to researchers around the world.

“This has been an amazing year for the stem cell and regenerative medicine fields,” said Daley, past-president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. “It’s important to have our work recognized publicly this way, because it helps the general public understand why it is so important and promising.”

Melton and colleagues had two major discoveries written up in the Science “Breakthrough of the Year.” In the first, Melton and postdoctoral fellow Qiao “Joe” Zhou reported transforming one form of mouse adult pancreatic cell directly into insulin-producing beta cells in the mouse — without returning the cells to a stem cell-like state. That feat of biological prestidigitation carried both diabetes and stem cell research a major step forward.

A short time afterward, Melton and postdoctoral fellow Danwei Huangfu announced having used chemicals — rather than the genes that are commonly used — to produce iPS cells. This new technique eliminates some of the complicating factors in reprogramming, and may hasten the day when reprogrammed cells can be used to treat disease.

Like all the other breakthroughs in cellular reprogramming, the efforts lead by Eggan, Melton, Daley, Hochedlinger, and Cowan were based on earlier work using embryonic stem cells. Scientists do not yet know whether iPS cells are, in fact, precisely equivalent to embryonic stem cells, and so HSCI scientists are continuing to work with embryonic stem cells at the same time they are advancing efforts in reprogramming.