UC Berkeley press release


Two UC Berkeley scientists appointed to the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute

by Robert Sanders

Berkeley -- Two UC Berkeley scientists have been appointed investigators in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, joining an elite group of researchers funded by the largest private philanthropy in the country.

Immunologist James P. Allison and geneticist Barbara J. Meyer are among 70 new investigators to be announced May 20 by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md. This brings to eight the number of Howard Hughes investigators on the UC Berkeley campus.

The institute funds medically related research in the areas of cell biology, genetics, immunology, neuroscience and structural biology at universities and academic medical centers across the U.S. Membership in the institute is much sought after because investigators are guaranteed funding for five to seven years, with no strings attached on the kinds of research they conduct.

The new appointees increase the total number of the institute's investigators around the nation by 25 percent, to more than 330 investigators at 72 medical schools, universities and research institutions. This is the largest expansion of the institute since it began funding medical research in 1953.

Among the new appointees are three from UC San Francisco and one each from UC San Diego and UCLA.

Allison, 48, a professor of immunology, studies a type of white blood cell -- the T cell -- that plays a dominant role in the body's defenses against viruses and cancer cells. He was the first to define the structure used by T cells to recognize foreign antigens -- pieces of invading organisms or cancer cells that stimulate a T cell attack. His recent work has demonstrated that there are other molecules that provide positive and negative signals that regulate the response of T cells to antigen signals.

While investigating the signals that activate T cells, he and his colleagues discovered last year a way to enhance the ability of T cells to go after tumors. He is improving the technique in hopes of turning it into a viable cancer therapy.

Meyer, 47, professor and head of the Division of Genetics in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, is interested in the molecular and genetic steps that determine sex. Working with the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, she has sought the genes involved in determining whether the creature becomes a male or a hermaphrodite. In particular she has looked at how cells count the number of X chromosomes, and based on the ratio of X chromosomes to non-sex chromosomes, steer the creature's sex one way or the other.

Her broader goals are to understand basic issues in developmental biology, such as how cells make choices between alternative fates, how cells become committed to a particular fate, and the molecular mechanisms by which a cascade of regulatory genes controls developmental decisions.

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