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Northwestern Scientists Win Hartwell Research Awards

Biomedical research in autism spectrum disorder and Crohn’s disease receive funding

  • Jeffrey Savas will investigate hampered synapses in autism spectrum disorder 
  • Arun Sharma will research nano-molecules to treat Crohn’s disease in children
  • Northwestern is one of only three institutions to win two Hartwell awards this year

CHICAGO --- Two Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine scientists, Jeffrey Savas and Arun Sharma, are winners of the 2015 Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards. Sharma is also Director of Surgical Research and a member of the Developmental Biology Program at Stanley Manne Children's Research Institute at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Savas, an assistant professor of neurology, won for a project to correct hampered synapses in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Sharma, a research assistant professor in urology, won for his proposal to develop new treatments for Crohn’s disease in children.

Each year, The Hartwell Foundation invites a limited number of institutions in the U.S. to nominate faculty members who are involved in early-stage, cutting-edge biomedical research that has not qualified for significant funding from outside sources. The award provides $100,000 in annual direct costs for three years. Twelve individuals representing nine institutions received recognition as Hartwell Investigators. Northwestern was one of only three institutions receiving two awards. This marks the third year in a row that a researcher affiliated with Northwestern and with the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute has received this honor.

“The 2015 competition was very competitive. The proposal by Savas was indicative of strong representation in neurobiology this year. The proposal by Sharma was also quite compelling, with exciting potential for benefitting children,” said Fred Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation.

The goal of Savas’s research is to investigate proteins in particular brain synapses that may be linked to autism spectrum disorder. (Synapses are specialized junctions between two or more nerve cells.) “This research on mouse models of autism aims to provide new knowledge to accelerate the development of effective therapeutics to treat children with ASD,” he said. “My proposal represents a pioneering effort and will be the first investigation to determine how specific synapses are perturbed and reformed in ASD.”

Savas said he will combine genetic, chemical and mass spectrometry-based methods into a new approach that facilitates probing the particular molecules present at individual synapses. 

Autism spectrum disorder comprises a group of brain development disorders characterized by significant deficits in social communication and social interaction. Children with ASD also have an increased risk of intellectual disabilities, epilepsy and attention deficit disorder. Approximately 1 in 68 children is affected by ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

It is believed that ASD represents a heterogeneous collection of disorders caused by the mutation of multiple genes that function within common brain pathways. Recent genetic research suggests that proteins in brain synapses play a key role in the pathology of ASD, where altered functionality in synapses can lead to disturbances in neural circuits, which ultimately contribute to impaired behaviors and pathology. Understanding the underlying mechanism of altered synapse function could provide possible targets for drug therapy. 

“As a new father, being chosen for this award is particularly meaningful to me since the mission of The Hartwell Foundation is to fund projects with the potential to benefit children,” Savas said. “Early career awards like The Hartwell are hugely important to junior faculty members like myself since they provide research support to obtain the preliminary data needed to secure sustained funding through the National Institutes of Health.”

Sharma plans to design new anti-inflammatory nano-molecules to treat Crohn’s disease in children. While the cause of Crohn’s is unknown, its symptoms include chronic swelling and inflammation of the intestines. Approximately 80,000 children are affected by this disease, with the number increasing yearly.

Treatments range from oral medications to injectable drugs that circulate throughout the body and have multiple side effects, including an increased risk of cancer. When these treatments eventually fail, surgery is performed to remove parts of the diseased intestine, causing such side effects as the inability to absorb nutrients from foods, growth delays and bone brittleness.

More than two-thirds of those with Crohn’s disease will require surgery during their lifetime, drastically affecting their quality of life. Moreover, treatments for children with Crohn’s are often not ideal because they are based on the adult population.

“The important unmet need is for safe and effective treatments that specifically meet the needs of pediatric patients,” Sharma said. “I have recently developed anti-inflammatory molecules that improve wound healing in urinary bladders. I now aim to adapt these to develop effective new treatments for children with Crohn’s.” The molecules are non-toxic, so they avoid the harmful side effects of current treatments, he noted.

“Being the recipient of The Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award brings me great satisfaction in knowing that an unmet clinical need amongst children will be addressed using state of the art science,” Sharma said.

“Northwestern is honored to be included among leading universities that nominate candidates for The Hartwell Foundation’s Individual Biomedical Research Award,” said Jay Walsh, vice president for research at Northwestern. “We are enthusiastic about the research of Arun Sharma and Jeffrey Savas to improve children’s lives, and we look forward to following their progress.”

For each nominee selected for a Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award, Northwestern University will receive a Hartwell Fellowship to fund one postdoctoral candidate of its choice in biomedical research who exemplifies the values of the Foundation. Hartwell Fellowships offer support for two years to scientists in the early stages of their research careers by enabling them to pursue further specialized training as part of professional career development.

Applications are now being accepted by Northwestern’s Office of Research Development for the Hartwell Biomedical Research Fellowships.

The Hartwell Foundation seeks to inspire innovation and achievement by offering individual researchers an opportunity to realize their professional goals. In selecting awardees, The Hartwell Foundation takes into account the compelling and transformative nature of the proposed innovation, the extent to which a strategic or translational approach might accelerate the clinical application of research results to benefit children of the U.S., the extent of collaboration in the proposed research, the institutional commitment to provide encouragement and technical support to the investigator, and the extent to which funding the investigator will make a difference. 

The Hartwell Foundation award and fellowship promise to advance discovery in biomedicine, which is a top priority for We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, a $3.75 billion University-wide fundraising initiative. More information on We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern is available at wewill.northwestern.edu.

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