Tuesday, August 22

UCLA professor receives presidential award


By David Zisser

DAILY BRUIN CONTRIBUTOR

[email protected]

  Melissa Spencer

The White House recently awarded UCLA professor Melissa Spencer,
showing faith in her potential to help cure a deadly disease.

Spencer, assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at
the David Geffen School of Medicine, received the prestigious
Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for
her research on Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a disease that
incapacitates patients’ muscles by their twenties.

“(Being awarded is) just that much more pressure to do
something that will impact (patients’) lives,” Spencer
said.

For winning the award, Spencer will receive two additional years
of funding from the National Institutes of Health to support her
research on DMD at UCLA.

Spencer is focusing on two aspects of DMD, its cause and the
harmful intervention of the immune system. Understanding the cause,
a gene mutation, could lead to a cure, whereas understanding the
role of the immune system could lead to more effective
treatment.

In her clinical trials, Spencer sees first-hand the debilitating
effects of DMD on patients. At about age four, DMD patients’
muscles begin to weaken. By about 15, they are wheelchair bound,
and by their twenties most are completely incapacitated. The
disease affects the large muscles first, and eventually, patients
can only move their fingers.

DMD is ultimately fatal ““ many patients lose the ability
to breathe and others die of cardiac failure ““ and there is
currently no treatment or cure for the disease.

Spencer was one of 60 people to receive the award this year.
Despite her achievement, Spencer continues to battle everyday
frustrating challenges. Last week, two freezers broke down,
resulting in the loss of thousands of samples used in her
research.

“We all lost a lot of work. Both of the freezers were
around a year old. They shouldn’t have broken down,”
Spencer said.

Eight federal departments and agencies nominate candidates for
the award, including the National Institutes of Health, which
nominated Spencer.

NIH selects its nominees from researchers at the beginning of
their careers.

First, each of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the
NIH gets to nominate up to three candidates. Spencer was nominated
by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Skin
Diseases, which funds her work.

Nominations are sent to NIH, whose director then selects 12
nominees to send to the White House.

All the nominees and their families received a White House tour.
During the awards ceremony at the White House, President Bush
delivered a speech congratulating the winners on their achievement
and thanking them for their contributions in science.

In addition to her NIH grant for DMD, Spencer is a recipient of
three other grants, including another from NIH and two from the
Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Commissioned by President Clinton in 1996, the PECASE honors the
extraordinary achievements of young professionals beginning
independent research careers in science and technology.

The award is intended to recognize and support scientists and
engineers who, while early in their research careers, show
exceptional potential for leadership in the scientific
community.

“This is a tremendous honor. It’s a very exclusive
club. All of our past winners have done tremendously well,”
said Belinda Seto, NIH representative to the White House.

One former NIH winner went on to win the McArthur Award, an
award given by the McArthur Foundation to a select group of
intelligent individuals who do work for the good of the public.
Another PECASE winner went on to win the Nobel Prize.

Because of the achievements of previous winners, Spencer feels
compelled to meet high expectations.

“I’m feeling a lot of pressure too to do something
big, at least to do something meaningful,” Spencer said.

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