UCSF/VA researcher to be awarded presidental early career award for promising research on molecules

By Kevin Boyd

A Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers will be given to
Eric Huang, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pathology at the University of
California, San Francisco, and pathologist at the San Francisco VA Medical
Center. Huang will visit the White House October 24 to receive the award in
recognition of his promising research on the molecules that allow neurons to
grow and survive.

Approximately sixty other scientists and engineers from various federal
government agencies will receive the awards, which President Clinton
established in 1996 to recognize federal researchers who show “exceptional
potential for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge.”

“Eric is an outstanding person,” said Huang’s former postdoctoral advisor Lou
Reichardt, PhD, UCSF professor of physiology, and biochemistry and biophysics.
“He is extremely bright and motivated. He’s also interactive and collaborates
well, which has helped him in his work.”

Huang studies the molecules in brain cells that allow them to survive and help
them to develop into particular types of neurons, such as those that carry
signals to the brain from the muscles, skin, and inner ear. Researchers believe
these molecules play an important role in many degenerative diseases of the
brain, and may contribute to future treatments or preventions.

Neurons develop by responding to proteins called neurotrophic factors, which
bind to receptors on the surface of the cells, Huang explained. Working with
Reichardt, he identified some of the proteins inside sensory nerve cells that
are necessary for this growth factor response and to the cell’s survival.
Specifically, Huang found that a protein called Brn3a is critical to the growth
of sensory neurons which deliver signals to the brain from its sensory organs.

Some types of sensory neurons need Brn3a more or less than others do, Huang
said. By studying mice that were genetically modified to lack Brn3a and
observing the nerve cells in the developing fetus, he found that without Brn3a
some types of sensory nerve cells could not grow at all, whereas more general
sensory nerves could only survive temporarily.

“He has demonstrated that sensory neurons are born with different identities,”
Reichardt explained.

Seven months ago, Huang took a position at the San Francisco VA Medical Center
(SFVAMC), and is now running his own small research lab. He said he will
continue to explore the other proteins that interact with Brn3a and how they
control the genes and development of a nerve cell.

“Maybe this research doesn’t have a very direct application to a human disease
at the moment,” he said. “But it does start to show us how neurons are made,
and how the viability of neurons is maintained. If we can figure out this
system, we may be able to provide therapeutic agents to promote survival of
neurons,” Huang said.

Huang first came to UCSF as a resident in anatomic pathology in 1993 after
earning his MD degree at National Taiwan University and his PhD at Cornell in
molecular biology.

The VA’s Office of Research and Development will grant Huang $125,000 over the
next five years to aid his research.  Although the White House chooses the
recipients of the Early Career Awards, the amount of money received by each
awardee is determined by his or her government agency.

Huang is the second SFVAMC recipient of a Presidential Early Career award, and
the fourth at UCSF. Past awardees include Mary Nakamura, MD, UCSF assistant
professor of medicine and a staff rheumatologist at SFVAMC; Allison Doupe, MD,
PhD, UCSF assistant professor of psychiatry; and Ida Sim, MD, PhD, UCSF
assistant professor of medicine.