Volume 29 - Number 11 - Thursday, February 27, 1997

McGill trio earn top grants

by Diana Grier Ayton

The eccentric and reclusive Howard Hughes adopted extreme measures to avoid disease during his lifetime. Since his death, the richly-endowed Howard Hughes Medical Institute has given millions to biomedical research. The Institute announced today that three McGill scientists are among the latest to benefit.

The substantial awards, which range from $50,000 to $80,000 (U.S) for five years, are intended to support research into "how organisms develop, how the immune system functions, how our brains make sense of the world and other questions involving human health and disease," according to HHMI president Purnell Choppin.

Candidates had to be nominated by a senior scientist in order to even make a grant application. Dr. Michael Parniak, of the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research, says he is thrilled--if surprised--at being awarded a grant.

"I really wasn't anticipating it. I was happy to be nominated, but I know the success rate was low. I think 47 awards were made out of 500 applications from people in six countries. For McGill to have received three is really something to celebrate."

And Parniak says he and his team did celebrate "in an academic research kind of way. We couldn't afford champagne, but we did have beer."

Parniak, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine, is investigating the structure and function of the HIV-1 enzyme. His team's studies are providing more detailed information as to how antiviral drugs inhibit virus replication. The ultimate aim of the research is to assist in the development of new therapeutic strategies against HIV infection.

Dr. Nahum Sonenberg, from the Department of Biochemistry, is recognized internationally for his contributions in the area of regulation of protein synthesis. He was named one of five Medical Research Council Distinguished Scientists last summer.

Sonenberg says he will use his award to supplement a grant from the National Cancer Institute to study cell growth control. "This is a very prestigious award that will allow us to extend our current studies. It's very nice to get it."

The third McGill researcher named by the HHMI is biochemist Dr. Philippe Gros, whose field is molecular genetics. He has cloned two genes: the mdr gene, responsible for resistance to multiple anti-cancer drugs and the bcg gene, which appears to control natural resistance to a variety of infections that can cause diseases like tuberculosis, leprosy and salmonella poisoning.

Gros has collected a number of honours in the last few years. He was awarded a Steacie Fellowship in 1993, and in 1995, he was named the first recipient of the Michael Smith Award for Excellence and winner of a Medical Research Council Senior Scientist Award.

Parniak says that the HHMI award "provides stability in our funding for five years, and that allows us to stretch out into areas we would not otherwise be able try. We can play a little bit. It also allows me to keep some very important people I have working with me--and it says we're doing good work."

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