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Weerapana Recognized For Research

Assistant Prof Uses Interdisciplinary Approach In Work

Assoc. News Editor

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 20:01

Eranthie Weerapana, assistant professor in the Boston College chemistry department, has recently won two awards for her research in cancer and aging.

The Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation awarded Weerapana a Smith Family Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research. This honor is only available to biomedical researchers nominated by their institution who are within the first two years of their first research appointment in the state of Massachusetts, or at Brown or Yale Universities. Winners like Weerapana receive $300,000 if selected.

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation gave Weerapana a second, larger award, the Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award. This $450,000 grant is also only offered to young researchers. Applicants must be within the first three years of their initial appointment as an assistant professor.

The award was designed to fund researchers who have an innovative idea that could lead to major breakthroughs in cancer research but lack the preliminary data necessary to win more traditional forms of funding.

These awards will help fund Weerapana's preliminary research into the protein activities that cause cancer and aging, as well as the development of a molecule that could disrupt them.

"Both aging and cancer are caused by the dysfunction of cellular circuits," Weerapana said. "We have pathways that, when functioning normally, allow us to go about our business. If they become dysfunctional, diseases like cancer occur. Aging is caused by similar dysfunction."

Weerapana describes the overall goal of her research as "gaining a molecular-level understanding of mechanisms that lead to cancer and aging." This understanding is of crucial importance, as it could lead to the creation of a drug that could slow aging and prevent the development of cancer.

"We're trying to identify new protein targets for anti-cancer and anti-aging drugs," Weerapana said. "It's the first step in making a drug. We're then looking for a lead molecule that can be developed further to be a therapeutic,"

Weerapana's goal is certainly one worth funding, but her proposal had to be unique in order to defeat other equally ambitious research proposals in the highly competitive award process. Both foundations select only five young researchers out of the many who apply.

"My research is interdisciplinary," Weerapana said. "I draw from tools in chemistry and biology and combine different techniques to answer different questions about cancer and aging."

The innovative, interdisciplinary nature of Weerapana's research is part of what impressed the foundations that reviewed her proposals and part of what makes her research so promising.

Though Weerapana's research has much promise, it would be referred to as "high risk" research in the scientific community.

The awards that Weerapana applied for do not require any data, only a good idea. Winning this funding will allow her to reach the next step in her research process.

"Having this money allows me to fund my graduate students and lab to get the preliminary data necessary to apply for federal funding," Weerapana said.

Weerapana's current research team is composed of six graduate students, one postdoctorate, and six undergraduates. When can this team expect to see some results for their hopefully "high reward" study with the potential to lead to major biomedical breakthroughs?

"In about a year or two, we will have some interesting data," Weerapana said.

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