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UC Berkeley Press Release

Young innovator in cancer research chosen for NIH award

– A young University of California, Berkeley, researcher with an ambitious plan to identify tissue-specific cancer drugs has been chosen to receive a National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award, one of 29 to be announced Wednesday, Sept. 19, in Washington, D.C., by NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni.

Michael Rape
Michael Rape
Michael Rape, a 33-year-old assistant professor of molecular and cell biology who joined the UC Berkeley faculty a year ago, will use the $1.5 million over the next five years to focus on a family of nearly a thousand enzymes that are ripe targets for anti-cancer drugs.

This is the first year for the Director's New Innovator Awards, which are part of an NIH Roadmap for Medical Research initiative that tests new approaches to supporting research aside from the traditional NIH peer review system. Twelve $2.5 million, five-year Director's Pioneer Awards also will be announced Wednesday, the fourth year they have been awarded.

Currently, cancer drugs like taxol indirectly inhibit the kind of enzymes Rape studies. These enzymse are called ubiquitin ligases because they attach a protein called ubiquitin to other proteins in the cell to trigger a cascade of events leading to cell division. Taxol shuts down uncontrolled cell division, which is the hallmark of cancer, but does so in all tissues of the body, interfering with normal cell division in skin and hair in addition to abnormal growth in cancer.

Rape hopes to identify drugs that work in specific tissues, such as breast or colon tissue.

"The ultimate test of this proposal would be whether we can get a drug like taxol that doesn't block cell proliferation in all cells of the body, only in specific tissues," he said.

Earlier this year, Rape also was named one of 20 Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences. As a Pew Scholar, he will receive $240,000 over four years to pursue similar cancer research.

Rape's approach is to screen every known ubiquitin ligase to identify those enzymes operating in specific tissues and then assay chemicals in search of ones that disable them. Ideally, these chemicals will stop uncontrolled cell growth in targeted tissues only.

"NIH was looking for highly creative, high-risk/high-payoff research that opens up new avenues of exploration," he said, noting that, to date, only a handful of ubiquitin ligases have been studied. "This grant gives you the luxury of not having to provide a lot of preliminary data. You have to have a good idea and the credentials that you can do the work."

According to Zerhouni, the scientists recognized by these awards "are well-positioned to make significant - and potentially transformative - discoveries in a variety of areas. The conceptual and technological breakthroughs that are likely to emerge from their highly innovative approaches to major research challenges could speed progress toward important medical advances."

The Pioneer Awards support scientists at any career stage, while the New Innovator Awards are reserved for new investigators who have not received a regular NIH research grant.

"We hope that these programs also help remind the scientific community, including its newest members, that we encourage investigators to be bold and 'swing for the fences' with their proposals," said Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), which runs the award programs for NIH.

Zerhouni will announce the 2007 award recipients at the start of the NIH Director's Pioneer Award Symposium at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. The event will feature research progress reports from the 2006 Pioneer Award recipients, one of whom is UC Berkeley's Rebecca Heald, professor of molecular and cell biology.

According to NIH, the Roadmap for Medical Research is "a series of far-reaching initiatives designed to transform the nation's medical research capabilities and speed the movement of research discoveries from the bench to the bedside."