37 Researchers Working to Transform Biomedical Science

Pew’s 2024 scholars and fellows selected to advance health and medicine

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37 Researchers Working to Transform Biomedical Science

Biomedical researchers are on the front lines of scientific innovation. From responding to global pandemics to pioneering lifesaving cancer treatments, these researchers push past scientific boundaries to solve pressing health challenges. For nearly 40 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has supported more than 1,000 early-career biomedical scientists committed to this discovery.

This year, 37 scientists join the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences, Pew Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences, and Pew-Stewart Scholars Program for Cancer Research. They will receive multiyear grants to pursue their interests in cell biology, cancer, neuroscience, and other critical research areas.

Cracking the cancer code

Decades of innovative research have transformed how we prevent and treat cancer. But urgent questions remain, and members of this new class are leading the search for cures.

For example, one researcher hopes to uncover how the nervous system and cancer cells communicate, and how this relationship can be leveraged in treatment. Several scholars are looking to stem cells: specialized cells that transform into all different cell types, including cancers. One researcher will examine how the microenvironment of stem cells residing in the lymphatic system contributes to tumor growth. Another will use an organoid model to explore why certain stem cell populations fuel deadly brain cancer.

Numerous therapies also offer promising outcomes. One researcher will explore how to fine-tune CAR-T therapy, a treatment that directs immune cells called T-cells to attack cancer. Similarly, another will examine ways to activate a protective protein called p53 to help halt tumor growth. And finally, a third will survey cancer drugs more broadly to catalog all the proteins that interact with a particular drug.

Conversely, one fellow is studying how cancer drugs that target the immune system can give rise to autoimmune disorders. And another is exploring how variations in cell plasticity—how cells respond and adapt to stimuli—might determine why cancer becomes resistant to treatment.

Unraveling the brain’s mysteries

The brain is the body’s central command center, but much about how it works remains unknown. Several researchers are working to unravel more of those mysteries.

For example, one is studying how the brain assesses and responds to the competing needs required for survival via neuropeptides, sequences of amino acids believed to help the brain oscillate among priorities. Meanwhile, another scholar will examine the mechanisms behind the brain’s learning and reward systems to better understand what drives associative learning in animals and humans.

Others are exploring what happens when things in the brain go awry. One is studying the neural pathways involved when dopamine becomes dysregulated, a process often linked to schizophrenia. Another will employ new methods to better understand how genetic factors contribute to the development of brain disorders.

Decoding the genome

The human genome is maintained and regulated by DNA and RNA inside cells. It serves as a treasure trove of information behind everything from our hair color to how we age, and scientists are taking a closer look into how it functions.

One scholar will delve into the unknowns of RNA assembly, developing a machine learning algorithm capable of predicting RNA structure based on their sequences. Another will explore the configuration of telomeres, the largely understudied protective “caps” that help chromosomes maintain their shape. And finally, one will work to unravel the genetic and environmental factors that drive sex differences.

Problems within the genome—such as when large pieces of DNA break and relocate themselves—are closely linked to cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. One scholar is exploring how this breakage occurs within chromosomes, and why that can lead to disease. Another scholar will examine the mechanisms that prevent genetic elements from becoming repositioned in the genome, which could inform new disease treatments aimed at stabilizing these elements.

Preventing and treating disease

From developing vaccines to battling antibiotic resistance, scientific research is key to managing global health and several new class members are taking on this task.

One scholar will examine how the heart’s communication with other organs contributes to cardiovascular disease progression. A fellow is investigating the potential of molecules called glue RNAs to promote protein degradation associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which could help scientists treat ALS. Another will explore how metabolic dysfunction contributes to inflammation and obesity. And a scholar is studying the underpinnings of a specialized immune cell called macrophage that can cause harmful inflammation.

In some instances, insects or birds spread disease. Several scholars and fellows are studying mosquitos, exploring how their olfactory systems help them sniff out the best target, how female mosquitos pass viruses on to their offspring, and what mechanisms help these parasitic infections transmit so successfully to human hosts. Another scholar is exploring avian influenza, which can infect humans under the right conditions. And a fellow is examining whether parasite eradication, particularly during pregnancy, has contributed to a rise in respiratory infections and asthma among babies.

Finally, some class members are investigating bacterial diseases. For example, tuberculosis can differ widely in severity and one researcher is looking for specific genes driving this variability. Another is researching infection more broadly, exploring how metabolic changes in bacteria may fuel the rise of antibiotic resistance.

Dissecting cellular function

Cells are the building blocks of all living organisms, and several researchers are digging into core questions about cellular function.

Human cells rely on cell-surface receptor proteins to help them adapt to the unique needs and conditions of their surrounding environment. One scholar will engineer synthetic receptors to manually rewire how immune cells respond to stimuli. Another will investigate how specific proteins control centromeres, a DNA component that helps chromosomes stay glued together and divide properly, while a third is looking at what drives successful chromosome segregation during the development of mature egg cells. A fellow will examine the formation of specialized neural crest cells during embryotic development, work that could inform how to treat conditions such as cleft lip and palate.

Scientists already know that certain cell types make it possible for the human body to bounce back after illness or injury. One of the newly named scholars will explore the neural mechanisms that remodel the lungs after infection or irritants. Another will examine how cells assemble to form organs, potentially unveiling ways to create functional organs for transplantation. And finally, a scholar will look at freshwater flatworms’ powerful regenerative capabilities to learn more about the potential for tissue regeneration in humans.

Donna Dang works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs.

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