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Two UW-Madison researchers receive Shaw Awards

May 19, 2008

Innovative research that could help develop drugs to treat disorders such as epilepsy and cardiac arrhythmias, and a novel approach to advancing the understanding of how breast cancer cells lose the ability to respond positively to anti-estrogen therapy won two University of Wisconsin–Madison scientists 2008 Shaw Scientists Awards.

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation honored Baron Chanda, an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology, and Wei Xu, an assistant professor in the Department of Oncology, with the awards last week.

The Shaw Award — a $200,000 unrestricted prize — provides critical support for groundbreaking research at the frontiers of genetics, cell biology and cancer research to promising young scientists at the start of their careers. To date, the award has provided over $10 million in grants to support cutting-edge research at UW-Milwaukee and UW–Madison.

“Funding for innovative research is scarce, even for the most talented scientists. This makes the Shaw Awards especially important and effective because it gives scientists the flexibility to pursue their research with no funding limitations,” says Douglas Jansson, Greater Milwaukee Foundation president. “Scientists who have received the Shaw Award over the past 26 years have told us this funding has been essential to moving important research efforts forward. Dorothy Shaw created her fund because she had a passion to promote progress in the health and biological sciences. We believe she’d be very pleased that her gift plays such a vital role in the important work of promising young scientists.”

Chanda’s lab is exploring how disorders such as epilepsy and cardiac arrhythmias or drug therapies alter the normal processes that occur on a cellular level. This information is critical to designing more effective therapeutic agents for such diseases, which are caused by disruption or modification of ion channel currents in cells. By understanding the structural mechanisms that determine ion channel function and devising methods to fine-tune the excitability of neurons, Chanda’s lab has the very real potential to aid development of more effective drugs for the treatment of disease conditions that arise from defects in ion channel function.

Xu is exploring changes in the proteins that control the expression of genes important in breast cancer. Xu’s lab is working with an enzyme that controls a tumor’s sensitivity to estrogen. When the enzyme is turned off, genes usually controlled by estrogen receptors (ER) in the tumor no longer respond to estrogen. This research is key because some of the most effective breast cancer treatments suppress the growth of these estrogen-responsive tumors. This research explains the phenomena of why some breast cancer patients fail to respond to the anti-hormonal therapies. Xu has also developed a novel system to evaluate estrogen analogues, some from traditional Chinese medicines and other environmentally available compounds that may be able to suppress tumor growth by causing the two intrinsic forms of ER to pair.

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation created the Shaw Scientist Award from the James D. Shaw and Dorothy Shaw Fund. Dorothy Shaw, widow of prominent Milwaukee attorney James D. Shaw, endowed the fund with a $4.5 million bequest. She directed that part of her fund be used to advance research in biochemistry, biological science and cancer research at UW–Madison and UW-Milwaukee. To date, Dorothy Shaw’s bequest has contributed more than $12.2 million, more than $10 million to support the work of 54 Shaw Scientists.