Three scientists from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have been awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor given by the United States government to outstanding scientists and engineers who are in the early stages of their independent research careers.
The three scientists are C. Shad Thaxton, MD, PhD, who is developing next-generation therapeutic nanoparticles for heart disease and cancer; Steven Kosak, PhD, who studies the organization of genomes; and Charlesnika Evans, PhD, MPH, who researches the secondary complications of spinal cord injury and healthcare-associated infections.
They are going to Washington, DC, next week to meet President Obama and attend an awards ceremony July 31 at the Natural History Museum.
“Discoveries in science and technology not only strengthen our economy, they inspire us as a people,” President Obama said. “The impressive accomplishments of today’s awardees so early in their careers promise even greater advances in the years ahead.”
Thaxton was recognized for outstanding accomplishments in the field of nanoparticle-based diagnostics and therapeutics and for pioneering research on the synthesis of bio-inspired nanomaterials for toxin sequestration and cellular regulation. He is an assistant professor of urology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.
Kosak was recognized for his novel research into how the total DNA sequence of an organism (its genome) is non-randomly packaged within the nucleus. Kosak is an assistant professor in cell and molecular biology and a member of the Lurie Cancer Center.
Evans was recognized for her research in secondary complications in persons with spinal cord injuries and in healthcare-related infections. She is a research assistant professor in the Center for Healthcare Studies at Feinberg and a research health scientist at Hines VA in the Center for Management of Complex Chronic Care.
The presidential early career awards embody the high priority the Obama administration places on producing outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the nation’s goals, tackle grand challenges, and contribute to the American economy.
Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach. This year there are 96 recipients.
C. Shad Thaxton
Thaxton’s research focuses on fabricating new nanomaterials and translational nanotechnology with an emphasis on nanoparticle-based molecular diagnostics and nanotherapeutics.
Thaxton has developed a method of synthesizing nanoparticles that mimic naturally occurring nanoparticles in the body. The synthetic target was high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) which are natural nanoparticles that have a number of biological functions, perhaps most well-known due to their ability to bind “good” cholesterol to remove it from the cells and tissues in the body where cholesterol accumulation may lead to, for example, heart attacks. The Thaxton lab formulated biomimetic nanoparticle high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) as potential therapeutic agents that function similarly to their natural counterparts and, one day, may be considered therapy to treat cholesterol build-up or to sequester other toxins that target similar cellular locations as cholesterol. Control over the synthesis of HDLs is enabling the group to better understand the particles’ biological functions and how to change and manipulate the way the materials interact with cells. This understanding may pave the way to potent therapies for many disease processes beyond heart disease, such as cancer, where access of HDLs to specific cell types may be leveraged for targeted drug delivery.
Kosak’s investigations have provided evidence that genomes are spatially organized according to nuclear functions, in particular the expression of genes.
Kosak’s work indicates that the arrangement of the human genome varies according to cell type; for example, the genomic organization of a blood cell may be distinguishable from a muscle cell. His group is working to fully characterize the role self-organization – a process in which localized gene networks yield an emergent order that feeds back and strengthens the original network – plays during the differentiation of human stem cells. Kosak is currently focused on adapting these ideas to the development of next-generation diagnostic tools to facilitate the identification of cells involved in pathologies ranging from cancer to aging.
Evans’ research focuses on the secondary complications of persons with spinal cord injury and on women with HIV.
Evans studies the epidemiology of infectious diseases, particularly healthcare-associated infections and outcomes related to these infections. She has researched the overprescribing of antibiotics in people with spinal cord injuries, which can result in the development of multi-drug resistance. She is planning to implement an education toolkit for veterans with spinal cord injuries, which will be used to help providers educate patients about Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and prevent its transmission. Another one of her studies focuses on the risk factors related to the clostridium difficile bacterial infection in veterans with spinal cord injuries, how they are treated and the outcomes of that treatment.