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Two young UW-Madison faculty win Shaw Scientist Awards

June 2, 2010 By Jill Sakai

Two University of Wisconsin–Madison assistant professors will receive the 2010 Shaw Scientist Awards, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation announced today.

Anjon (Jon) Audhya, assistant professor of biomolecular chemistry, and Eric Strieter, assistant professor of chemistry, are this year’s honorees. The Shaw Award — a $200,000 unrestricted prize for each recipient — provides needed support to young scholar-scientists engaged in groundbreaking research in the fields of genetics, cell biology and cancer research at critical stages in their careers.

“Unrestricted funding for scientists engaged in this research is increasingly rare,” says foundation president Doug Jansson. “This award provides early support for outstanding young investigators as they build their research labs and their reputations. In many cases, these young researchers are only able to continue their important work without interruption because of the very generous funding provided by the Shaw Award.”

Audhya’s research focuses on the basic question of how cells communicate with each other to know when to divide. When the signaling that normally guides cell division goes haywire, cells can divide inappropriately and form cancerous tumors. He is working to find ways to turn off specific signaling pathways to stop tumor formation.

“In cancer, cells that are not normally turned on to grow continue growing,” Audhya explains. “In working in this basic area of cancer research, we’re trying to take advantage of what the cells would do if they were healthy and were able to shut down these signals on their own.”

Understanding these signals could lead to cancer treatments that target abnormal cells while sparing healthy ones, leading to fewer side effects than current chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Strieter studies the triggers that control proliferation of harmful bacteria in our bodies. For example, uncontrolled proliferation of certain bacteria in the lungs can impair lung function, especially in people with compromised immune systems.

“When certain bacteria grow unchecked, they build up and clump into communities that form a shield around the bacteria,” Strieter says. “Those communities of bacteria secrete toxins the immune system does not recognize, and we cannot fight effectively with traditional forms of broad spectrum antibiotics. Our goal is to understand what these toxins are and understand, at a basic level, how these molecules facilitate bacterial proliferation. Ultimately, we hope to use this knowledge to develop more effective therapeutic agents.”

Such agents could lead to better therapies for diseases like cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.

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, directed that part of the fund be used to advance biochemistry, biological science, and cancer research at UW–Madison and UW-Milwaukee. Since the first grants were made in 1982, the Shaw Award has provided more than $12 million in grants to support cutting-edge research at the two institutions.