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Jennifer Benanti receives MIRA grant to advance understanding of how cells proliferate

By Susan E.W. Spencer

UMass Medical School Communications

May 20, 2020
 
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Jennifer A. Benanti, PhD

Jennifer A. Benanti, PhD, associate professor of molecular, cell & cancer biology, was recently awarded a federal Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award, or MIRA grant, to advance her lab’s study of molecular mechanisms of cell cycle control, a key factor in understanding cancer development. 

MIRA grants are among the National Institutes of Health’s grants for outstanding investigators. The MIRA program, through the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, provides investigators with greater stability and flexibility, enhancing scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs. The program also helps to distribute funding more widely among the nation's highly talented and promising investigators.

The grant is anticipated to provide a total of $3.2 million over five years, according to the notice of award.

“The idea behind this award is that it will encompass all of the work in my lab that is funded by NIGMS,” Dr. Benanti said. The grant combines work from two previously funded projects under one umbrella. “With MIRA funding, the investigator is not tied to specific aims of a grant like you normally are. Instead, you’re free to pursue the most promising directions as they arise, and to just do the most impactful science that you can.”

Benanti described her work as basic science that attempts to understand how cells control division, in order to understand cancer cells.

“The one thing that all cancer cells have in common is cells proliferate too much,” she said. “Remarkably, after decades of work on this question, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.”

To be able to grow and divide uncontrollably, cancer cells carry mutations in genes that usually limit the proliferation of normal cells, she said. When a mutation is discovered, it is often difficult to predict precisely how it affects cell growth and division.

The Benanti lab studies cell division in budding yeast, since the genes and pathways that control cell division in yeast also regulate division of human cells. Benanti said the goal of this project is to determine how multiple regulatory pathways work together to control progression through the cell division cycle and limit cell proliferation.