FRAMINGHAM PHILANTHROPISTS ENDOW CHAIR AT UMASS MEDICAL SCHOOL

October 10, 2003

WORCESTER, Mass.—Jack Blais and his wife Shelley, philanthropists who have given $21 million to the University of Massachusetts Medical School over the past four years, have endowed a University Chair for Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Distinguished Professor of Molecular Medicine Craig C. Mello, PhD , announced Aaron Lazare, MD, Chancellor and Dean of the Medical School. 

Dr. Mello (pictured seated at right with The Blaises and Chancellor Lazare), who will be named the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine, is internationally recognized as co-discoverer of ribonucleic acid interference, or RNAi, one of the most important scientific developments in recent years. 

“Jack and Shelley Blais continue to humble us with their remarkable generosity and their passion for supporting our work,” said Dr. Lazare.  “For them to pledge their support to one of our stellar faculty is a true testament to their commitment to the Medical School’s future as a premier research institute.”      

While investigating the genetic workings of the microscopic worm, C. elegans, Mello and colleague Andrew Fire, PhD, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, discovered RNAi, a natural but previously unrecognized process by which a certain form of RNA can be manipulated to silence—or interfere with—the expression of a selected gene.  The discovery, published in the journal Nature in 1998, has had two extraordinary impacts on biological science. One is as a research tool: RNAi is now the state-of-the-art method by which scientists can knock out the expression of specific genes in cells, to thus define the biological functions of those genes.  But just as important has been the finding that RNA interference is a normal process of genetic regulation that takes place during development.  Thus, RNAi has provided not only a powerful research tool for experimentally knocking out the expression of specific genes, but has opened a completely new and totally unanticipated window on developmental gene regulation.  Mello and Dr. Fire have collected numerous honors for their work in RNAi, including the Wiley Prize in the Biomedical Sciences and the Award in Molecular Biology from the National Academy of Sciences; they were also nominated for the Lasker Award, and RNAi was hailed as the 2002 “Breakthrough of the Year” by Science magazine.

“Although RNAi has rapidly become a valuable tool for basic medical research, there is still a great deal that we do not know about the underlying mechanism,” said Mello. “This generous gift from the Blaises will help me and the other scientists in my lab to pursue a deeper understanding of RNAi that will be essential both for improving its utility and for developing its potential as a therapeutic.  I am extremely grateful to Jack and Shelley and I am deeply honored by their expression of confidence in me.”

The Blaises, of Framingham, have a growing history of supporting research at UMMS.  They were initially introduced by Anna Ling Pierce, who has worked to raise funds to support cancer research at UMass Medical School since her daughter Ali’s death from liver cancer.  It was the courageous story of Ali and her father, John, which originally drew the Blaises to support research at the Medical School. Ali, a high school freshman, succumbed to cancer in 1996; her father died of a heart attack less than a year later while running a half-marathon.  He was training to run the Boston Marathon to raise money for the endowment fund created in Ali’s memory.

“Shelley and I are happy to be part of this new frontier in biological research,” said Mr. Blais.  “We find it incredible that the genetic development of a microscopic worm can shed light on human genetic development. Dr. Mello’s keen understanding of these genetic functions is astounding. The opportunities UMass Medical School provides its researchers are second to none.” 

A mechanical engineer who built his fortune by turning concepts into reality, Mr. Blais and his wife Shelley pledged their first million-dollar gift to the Medical School in December 2000 to help construct, outfit and recruit researchers to new laboratories for Peter E. Newburger, MD, professor of pediatrics and molecular genetics & microbiology, who oversaw Ali Pierce's treatment.  Impressed with the research and touched by the Pierce family's story, the Blaises soon pledged an additional $2 million to complete the laboratory and name it the John Pierce Pediatric Cancer Laboratories. They gave another $3 million when the Medical School opened its new research laboratory building and, in October 2001, the Blaises gave $15 million-the largest gift from an individual in the history of the University of Massachusetts-and asked that the research building be named for Dr. Lazare, honoring the institution's accomplishments during Dr. Lazare's ten years of leadership as Chancellor. 

The number of endowed positions at UMMS has nearly quadrupled in the last six years, from just seven in 1997 to 26 in 2003. “Endowed professorships increase the Medical School’s ability to attract individuals distinguished in their fields while retaining the school’s eminent faculty,” said Lazare.  “They also provide an opportunity for private donors to enrich specific areas of academic excellence.”

Mello, who holds degrees from Brown University (BS in Biochemistry) and Harvard University (PhD in Cellular and Developmental Biology), was a postdoctoral fellow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center before coming to UMMS in 1994.  In 2000 he was named an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), one of the most prestigious and sought-after scientific awards in the world.  HHMI is a $13 billion medical research organization that employs more than 350 eminent researchers at 72 medical schools, universities and research institutes worldwide.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing medical schools in the country, has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research.  Comprising the Graduate School of Nursing and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences as well as the School of Medicine, UMMS attracts more than $143 million in research funding annually, which enables UMMS researchers to explore human disease from the molecular level to large-scale clinical trials.  Basic and clinical research leads to new approaches for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease.  More information is available at www.umassmed.edu .

Contact: Alison Duffy at alison.duffy@umassmed.edu