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Naked mole rat and nanoscale imaging research win 2009 Cozzarelli prizes

Uduak Grace Thomas

Six papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have been recognized from over 3000 papers published in 2009.

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Reports on the cancer resistance of naked mole rats and nanoscale magnetic resonance imaging are among the six papers were recognized as outstanding contributions to the scientific disciplines by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

The authors of the six winning papers, which were among 3700 published reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), were awarded the 2009 Cozzarelli prize. The awardees were honored during the PNAS annual meeting on April 25 in National Harbor, MA.

For their research on the cancer resistance of the naked mole rat, a team from the University of Rochester clinched the biomedical sciences prize. The team was led by Vera Gorbunova, associate professor of biology at the university. “I was really happy that this recognition came from the National Academy of Sciences,” she told BioTechniques. “Sometimes it takes time for the scientific community to recognize a novel model system, although this is clearly changing.”

Gorbunova’s study showed that naked mole rat cells regulate the gene p16 to curb uncontrolled cell growth and prevent tumors from forming. The scientists hope that their research can eventually be used to develop therapies for cancer.

The engineering prize went to a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the IBM Almaden Research Center (San Jose, CA) whose paper described the creation of 3-D images of the tiny tobacco mosaic virus using a magnetic resonance force microscope (MRFM).

“I think that for a scientist, who is measured by the quality and innovativeness of his experiments and ideas, this is a very rewarding distinction,” said team member Christian Degen, who is assistant professor of chemistry at MIT. “The fact that the Cozzarelli prize is awarded to only six out of over 3000 papers published in PNAS—a highly respectable journal—makes it even more valuable.”

The MRFM combines the 3-D capability of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and precision of atomic force microscopy (AFM) to create 3-D images of cells without destroying them.

“This is the first time we have been able to achieve images at the nanometer resolution,” said Daniel Rugar, manager of nanoscale studies at IBM Almaden and a co-author of the study. “This is a very important result, one we have been working on for a very long time. We are gratified that other people recognize it.”

Prior to this study, Rugar spent several years improving the sensitivity and resolution of the MRFM to image cells without destroying them. The microscope could help researchers study cell protein structures in great detail.

The Cozzarelli prizes were established in 2005 to honor the late PNAS editor-in-chief Nicholas Cozzarelli. The annual awards acknowledge research in six categories: mathematics and physics, biological sciences, engineering, biomedical sciences, behavioral and social sciences, and applied sciences. The other 2009 winners were:

- Mathematics and physics: “Physical and biogeochemical modulation of ocean acidification in the central North Pacific”

- Biological sciences: “Identification of a urate transporter ABCG2, with a common functional polymorphism causing gout”

- Behavioral and social sciences: “Neural correlates of admiration and compassion”

- Applied biological, agricultural, environmental sciences: “Wild birds of declining European species are dying from a thiamine deficiency syndrome

Full access to “Hypersensitivity to contact inhibition provides a clue to cancer resistance of naked mole-rat,” and “Nanoscale magnetic resonance imaging,” as well as other winning papers, is available on the PNAS website.