A Johns Hopkins University molecular biologist is among the 56 researchers who will share $600 million in grants awarded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Duojia Pan, an associate professor of molecular biology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, will receive about $500,000 a year for five years to study how organs control their own growth.
"I'm really excited about this," said Pan, who is known as D.J. "It's not only the money - it's an honor."
Announced Monday, the awards will go to innovative scientists who are conducting research on cutting-edge topics. More than 1,000 researchers from all over the country applied.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which has been funding research since 1976, made its previous round of awards in 2005, to 15 scientists. This year, it significantly increased the amount of money it awarded and the number of recipients.
Pan and others said the increase was especially important because funding from other sources, including the National Institutes of Health, has remained flat. "There are more applicants for the same money," said Pan, who gets about $400,000 annually from the NIH. While NIH funding is tightly controlled, Pan can use the Hughes funding to pursue any research he wants.
The NIH, which has a $29 billion research budget, tends to favor less innovative work, Pan and others said. "The NIH review process is very conservative," he said.
Pan, who emigrated from China 19 years ago, studies how organs grow to the correct size. "This question has never been solved," he noted.
He has focused on a gene known as "hippo," which seems to control when organs stop growing. When mutated in a fruit fly, the gene produces an abnormally large eye. Pan said he suspects that the pathway is relevant to cancer, "because cancer is literally uncontrolled growth."
Last year, Pan turned off the hippo pathway in the livers of mice and found that the organ grew five times larger than normal and eventually became cancerous. Pan will use the HHMI money to continue the hippo work on mice, and to examine how the pathway works in other organs, such as the prostate and the pancreas.
Others praised Pan's work. "His results have been really spectacular," said his supervisor, Carol Greider, chairwoman of the Hopkins department of molecular biology and genetics.
Greider said the award underscores the importance of basic biological research. "He's found genes that are very important to human cancer," she said.