Gene-Wei Li - Pew recognizes four MIT researchers for innovation in biomedical science

Biophysicist Ibrahim Cissé and cell biologist Gene-Wei Li honored as Pew Scholars; postdocs Ana Fiszbein and María Inda are named Pew Latin American Fellows.

Julia C. Keller | School of Science
June 20, 2017

The Pew Charitable Trusts has named Ibrahim Cissé, assistant professor of physics, and Gene-Wei Li, assistant professor of biology, as 2017 Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences. In addition, two postdocs, Ana Fiszbein and María E. Inda, were named to the 2017 class of Pew Latin American Fellows in the Biomedical Sciences in computational biology and synthetic biology, respectively.

The Pew Scholars program encourages early-career scientists to pursue innovative research to advance the understanding of human biology and disease. This year, 22 Pew Scholars will receive $240,000 over four years and gain inclusion into a select community of scientists that includes three Nobel Prize winners, five MacArthur Fellows, and five recipients of the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award. The applicants, who conduct research in all areas of biomedical sciences, must be nominated by one of 180 invited institutions. To date, the program has invested in more than 900 scholars.

"Pew's biomedical programs not only provide young scientists with the flexibility to pursue creative ideas; they also spark interdisciplinary thinking and collaborations that can open new paths in the search for answers," says Craig C. Mello, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, was a 1995 Pew Scholar, and chairs the Pew Scholars National Advisory Committee.

Cissé, the MIT Class of 1922 Career Development Assistant Professor, says "support from Pew at an early stage is great encouragement in pushing my lab further at the frontiers of different fields."

Cissé's research group is investigating the fundamental processes involved in gene activation. Using a combination of techniques in cell and molecular biology, biochemistry, genomics, and super-resolution microscopy, he will continue his investigations of the behaviors of the enzyme involved in the transcription of DNA to RNA molecules. The enzyme, RNA polymerase II, has been well-studied in vitro, but Cissé's work looks at these transient biological interactions within living cells. His findings will deepen the understanding of these processes, disruptions in which are linked to human disease, including most cancers.

Li's research looks at evolution of cells' production of proteins to answer a fundamental biological question of how cells specify how much of each type of protein to produce. In Li's Quantitative Biology Lab, researchers have developed a technique for measuring the precise production rates of every protein in a cell. Combining this approach with other techniques in cell, molecular, and computational biology, Li is comparing a broad range of organisms across evolutionary distances to determine whether all of their proteins are maintained at some preferred level. By artificially perturbing the quantities of selected proteins, Li can explore the mechanisms cells use to reestablish the proper protein balance to better understand when misregulation occurs that leads to disease.

"The success of my research hinges on close integration between expertise in biological and physical sciences, as well as constant stimulation from both disciplines," says Li, the Helen Sizer Career Development Assistant Professor. "The Pew scholarship will also provide a unique opportunity to interact with the brightest young minds in the biomedical sciences outside my field that will elevate my research to unanticipated levels."

Each year, current scholars come together to discuss their research and learn from peers in fields outside of their own. "I am looking forward to interacting with other Pew scholars, many of whom are also working on paradigm-shifting ideas," says Cissé.

Rebecca W. Rimel, president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts calls the scholars an "impressive group" that has demonstrated "the curiosity and courage that drive great scientific advances, and we are excited to help them fulfill their potential."

The Pew Latin American Fellows program, meanwhile, is intended to support postdocs from Latin America. Winners are awarded two years of funding to conduct research at laboratories and academic institutions in the United States.

The program also provides additional funding to awardees who return to Latin America to launch their own research labs after the completion of their fellowships. About 70 percent of program participants have taken advantage of this incentive and are conducting work on regional and global health challenges in nine Latin American countries, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

"Almost 150 young scientists have returned to their home countries and established independent research labs, providing critical groundwork for biomedical research across Latin America," says Torsten N. Wiesel, the 1981 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine and chair of the Latin American Fellows National Advisory Committee.

Ten Pew Latin American Fellows were named this year. The fellowship provides a $30,000 salary stipend to support two years of research, as well as an additional $35,000 for laboratory equipment should the fellow return to Latin America to start his or her own lab. Since the program's inception in 1990, the program has supported almost 150 young Latin American scientists.

Ana Fiszbein is a postdoc working in the Burge Lab, where she researches the role that changes in gene splicing could play in the biology of normal and tumor cells, with the goal of revealing novel targets for cancer therapeutics. "I am very honored to receive this award, it is a privilege and also a responsibility," she says. Fiszbein is working with Professor Christopher B. Burge, of the departments of Biology and Biological Engineering and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

"Ana is an exceptionally talented molecular biologist and independent thinker who came to my lab very well trained from her PhD in Alberto Kornblihtt's lab," Burge says. "She has developed very interesting hypotheses about the mechanistic connections between transcription and RNA splicing."

The activity of genes can be regulated on many levels, including how often DNA is read to produce an RNA, where within the gene that reading begins, and which of the gene's segments are represented in the RNA molecules that ultimately direct the formation of protein. Tumor cells harbor genetic changes that can alter all three of these points of control. However, little is known about the control of these regulatory processes or how they might be interconnected. Fiszbein is working on a sequence study of RNA in different species, with a sequence analysis of human cancer genomes to identify RNAs that may be present more often in cancer cells. She will then assess whether those RNA segments are co-regulated with the sites where the reading of a gene begins.

Inda is a postdoc working in the lab of Timothy Lu, an assistant professor leading the Synthetic Biology Group in the departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Biological Engineering. In the Lu Lab, she will work on the development of novel noninvasive strategies, for the early diagnosis and alleviation of inflammation in intestinal disorders, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

"The fellowship provides me a unique opportunity to learn the practical and theoretical underpinnings of cutting-edge research in the synthetic biology field for diagnosis and treatment of serious ailments," she says.

A variety of bacteria inhabit healthy human intestines, and members of the Lu laboratory have been working to commandeer some of these microbes for use as sentinels that could patrol the gut and secrete therapeutic molecules in areas that appear inflamed. Inda plans to equip bacteria with biosensors that recognize the molecular markers of IBD - and then trigger the release of anti-inflammatory compounds. She will then assess the engineered microbes' ability to distinguish between diseased and healthy tissue and to treat inflammation in an animal model of IBD.

Wiesel has high praise for the quality of this year's Latin American Scholars. "The 2017 class is again made up of researchers of outstanding promise who will no doubt continue to enhance the growing biomedical research community in the region," he says.