Phillip Zamore, PhD, becomes fifth HHMI researcher at UMMS

May 27, 2008

WORCESTER, Mass.— Phillip D. Zamore, PhD, the Gretchen Stone Cook Chair in Biomedical Sciences and professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, has been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, one of the most prestigious and sought-after scientific awards in the world. The Institute named 56 of the nation’s most innovative scientists to its new class of investigators today, committing more than $600 million to supporting their work.

Dr. Zamore is an international leader in the science of RNA interference (RNAi), a mechanism that cells originally developed to protect their DNA from a variety of parasitic agents that want to exploit them. His experiments have shed light on how RNAi works at the molecular level, specifically identifying that it was the small double-stranded RNA, the result of an enzymatic chopper called dicer, that precisely guided the silencing reaction of the process.

“The Howard Hughes Medical Institute recognizes creative thinkers and outstanding scientists whose pursuits add greatly to the body of scientific knowledge from which breakthroughs arise,” said Michael F. Collins, MD, interim chancellor of UMass Medical School and senior vice president for the Health Sciences of the University of Massachusetts. “For Dr. Zamore, this is an incredible moment: his research horizons are broadened exponentially. For UMass, it’s an affirmation that our institution is strengthened by energetic and brilliant faculty who have remarkable potential. We’re proud to see Phil receive this award.”

“I’m simply ecstatic,” exclaimed Zamore, who described feeling suddenly free to pursue ideas that previously felt too risky. “My lab and I can pursue ideas that interest us even if they might not meet our NIH criteria. For example, we recently came upon a very strange phenotype in a particular fly cross,” he said, explaining a defect in the phenotype that affects the development of the left or right wing, but not both. “I’ve never seen asymmetry like this, and with the HHMI backing, now we can run with it to see where it leads.”

A member of the UMMS community since 1999, Zamore received his AB and his PhD from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Harvard University and was awarded a Life Sciences Research Foundation Fellowship to complete his postdoctoral study at the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was named a 2000 Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences by the Pew Charitable Trusts and, in 2002, was appointed a grant recipient under the W. M. Keck Foundation’s Distinguished Young Scholars in Medical Research Program. He is the author of several high-impact papers in molecular biology and genetics.

Zamore was among more than 1,070 scientists nationwide who applied for the 2008 HHMI appointments. Recipients were chosen in part for their innovative thinking and ability to extend their research beyond the conventional boundaries of science. In describing the newly named Hughes investigators, Thomas R. Cech, president of HHMI, said, “These 56 scientists will bring new and innovative ways of thinking about biology to the HHMI community. They are poised to advance scientific knowledge dramatically in the coming years, and we are committed to providing them with the freedom and flexibility to do so.”

Zamore joins fellow UMMS Hughes investigators Roger J. Davis, PhD, the H. Arthur Smith Chair in Cancer Research and professor of molecular medicine; Michael R. Green, MD, PhD, the Lambi and Sarah Adams Chair in Genetic Research and professor of molecular medicine; Craig C. Mello, PhD, the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and professor of molecular medicine; and Melissa J. Moore, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology. Their laboratories are funded by HHMI while they retain their faculty appointments at the Medical School and pursue their research.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, established in 1953 by the aviator and industrialist Howard Hughes, is a non-profit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation’s largest philanthropies and plays a powerful role in advancing biomedical research and science education in the United States. In the past two decades, HHMI has made investments of more than $8.3 billion for the support, training and education of the nation’s most creative and promising scientists.  Based in Chevy Chase, Md., it currently employs more than 300 of the nation’s most innovative scientists, who lead laboratories at 64 institutions. These scientists are widely recognized for their creativity and productivity: 124 are members of the National Academy of Sciences and 12 have been honored with the Nobel Prize.

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