UC Berkeley News


Young cancer-research innovator chosen for NIH award
Michael Rape's 'high-risk/high-payoff research' focuses on blocking cancer-cell proliferation in non-targeted tissues

| 26 September 2007

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

Michael Rape

Michael Rape, a 33-year-old assistant professor of molecular and cell biology who joined the Berkeley faculty a year ago, will use the award proceeds of $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.

Currently, cancer drugs like taxol indirectly inhibit the kind of enzymes Rape studies. These enzymes 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 says.

Earlier this year, Rape also was named one of 20 Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences; 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 says, 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."