Two UCSF Researchers Named Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences

By Mike Billings

Two UC San Francisco scientists have been named Pew scholars in the biomedical sciences.

Christopher Allen, PhD, and Dengke Ma, PhD, were among the 22 exceptional early-career scientists in the 2016 class announced Thursday, June 9, by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Each scholar will receive four years of flexible funding to pursue foundational, innovative research.

“For more than 30 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has proudly supported outstanding biomedical researchers at the start of their careers, encouraging the kind of creativity that leads to remarkable discoveries,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts. “The members of this exemplary group join a community of scientists that they will learn with, and learn from, for the rest of their lives.”

Portrait of Christopher Allen
Christopher Allen, PhD

Allen is an assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy and an investigator at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at UCSF and the Sandler Asthma Basic Research Center. His research explores how we become allergic to seemingly harmless substances in our environment.

In allergic individuals, B cells in the immune system produce a particular type of antibodies, called IgE, that recognize substances such as pollen grains or cat dander, termed allergens. These IgE antibodies are then captured and displayed on the surface of other immune cells, priming them to react vigorously when the allergen is next encountered, thereby triggering an allergic reaction. Notably, little is known about what signals cause immune cells to react to specific allergens and why IgE antibodies are produced during this response.

As a faculty fellow, Allen’s laboratory engineered a strain of mice in which IgE antibody-generating B cells are specifically labeled. It will now determine where these IgE B cells arise, what conditions stimulate their generation, and whether other molecules or cells suppress this reaction in healthy individuals. These findings could provide novel approaches for the treatment or prevention of allergies and asthma.

Portraid of Dengke Ma
Dengke Ma, PhD

Ma is an assistant professor in the Cardiovascular Research Institute at UCSF and the Department of Physiology. His research will explore the molecular mechanisms that allow some animals to withstand oxygen deprivation and replenishment.

While heart attacks and strokes cause severe damage by cutting off the oxygen supply to tissues, a condition known as hypoxia, the rapid reintroduction of oxygen can also be deleterious to cells and their components. Yet some organisms are surprisingly resistant to damage from hypoxia and reoxygenation, including the free-living nonparasitic worm C. elegans and a type of hibernating ground squirrel, both of which face fluctuating oxygen levels in their natural environments.

He is working to identify the genes that provide these two organisms with a tolerance for oxygen deprivation and reintroduction. As a postdoctoral fellow, he discovered and characterized genes involved in the worm's ability to withstand reoxygenation. Now, he is working to identify genes that confer resistance to hypoxia in squirrel cells and will search for genes that do the same in C. elegans.

Ultimately he will test these "hypoxia tolerance" genes in mouse and human cells to determine whether they can protect these normally sensitive cells against hypoxic damage ­– work that could lead to new strategies for limiting the damage from heart attacks and stroke in humans.

The full press release about the 2016 Pew Scholars in biomedical research can be found at the Pew Charitable Trust’s website.

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