Graduate Student to Receive Award from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Feng-Yen Li, a candidate for PhD and MD degrees in biomedical sciences at UCSF, is among 13 graduate students from throughout North America chosen to receive the 2012 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award.

Feng-Yen Li

Feng-Yen Li

The award is sponsored by the Basic Sciences Division of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Nominations were solicited internationally and the winners were selected on the basis of the quality, originality and significance of their work. The recipients, all advanced students at or near the completion of their studies in the biological sciences, will participate in a scientific symposium on May 4 at the Hutchinson Center.

Magnesium has long been recognized as an essential, constantly-bound cofactor in many proteins, but it has not been shown to transiently talk to specific signaling molecules upon cellular stimulation. Studying a family of two boys who suffer from chronic Epstein-Barr virus infections, Li discovered such a "second-messenger" role for magnesium in T cell signalling. These boys have a genetic mutation that ablates a magnesium channel called MagT1 required to mediate a magnesium flux that is needed to transiently talk to certain molecules during T cell signaling.

Loss of MagT1 leads to suboptimal activation of T cells, which play an important role in clearing viral infections. Li discovered five additional patients affected by this rare disease now named X-linked immunodeficiency with Mg2+ defect, EBV infection and neoplasia (XMEN) disease. This discovery also suggests that MagT1 could be a potential extracellular therapeutic target for inhibiting T cell activation in autoimmune diseases. Read more about Li's research in the journal Nature [PDF].

She earned her A.B. degree in molecular biology at Princeton University in 2005. She participated in a Princeton-Oxford exchange program at Oxford University in 2003. As early as a sophomore in high school, Li has received many science awards, including taking first place in Cellular and Molecular Biology at Pennsylvania Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in 2000 and receiving a National Institutes of Health Fellows Award for Reseach Excellence in 2011.

Award to Foster Intellectual Exchange

The award, established in 2000, honors the late Harold M. Weintraub, PhD, a founding member of the center’s Basic Sciences Division, who in 1995 died from brain cancer at age 49. An international leader in the field of molecular biology, Weintraub identified genes responsible for instructing cells to differentiate, or develop, into specific tissues such as muscle and bone.

“Hal was one of the most outstanding scientists of his generation, as well as one of the most unpretentious. Hal had the knack of identifying the important questions in biology and designing experimental approaches that were creative, simple and elegant,” said Mark Groudine, MD, PhD, deputy director the Hutchinson Center and a former friend and colleague of Weintraub.

“By nurturing colleagues, students and postdocs, and helping all of us become better scientists, Hal was instrumental in establishing the collegial atmosphere at the Hutchinson Center. We believe having a symposium recognizing the achievements of young scientists is a great way to honor Hal and the recipients of this award,” said Groudine, who was instrumental in establishing the award.

The award recipients will receive a certificate, travel expenses and an honorarium from the Weintraub and Groudine Fund, established to foster intellectual exchange through the promotion of programs for graduate students, fellows and visiting scholars.

Interdisciplinary teams of world-renowned scientists and humanitarians at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center work together to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases. The center’s researchers, including three Nobel laureates, bring a relentless pursuit and passion for health, knowledge and hope to their work and to the world. For more information, visit the center’s website