UMDNJ Researcher Receives MERIT Award from the
National Institutes of Health
Study focuses on new approach to the transfer of genetic information
NEW BRUNSWICK—An expert in the metabolic processes of DNA at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School has received a prestigious $2.5 million MERIT Award, Method to Extend Research in Time, from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant provides long-term funding to Smita Patel, PhD, professor of biochemistry, in support of her research into gene transcription, or how genetic information is transferred from mitochondrial DNA to RNA, the molecules that carry genetic information to protein cells.
Mitochondria are responsible for processing oxygen and converting substances from foods that are consumed into energy for essential cell functions. The inability of the mitochondria to complete the chemical processes creates an energy crisis, causing improper cell function. Mitochondrial defects are seen in neuromuscular and skeletal disorders such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Huntington's diseases; the defects also appear in human aging.
"The financial support from the NIH through the MERIT Award allows me to pursue new avenues of research, one of which is to understand how mitochondrial DNA is transcribed. We are planning to use multiple biophysical approaches to investigate this problem leading to a predictive and quantitative model," said Dr. Patel. "The research can then be used to manage diseases related to mitochondrial defects in humans."
According to Dr. Patel, the research also has implications in infectious diseases and may be used to develop antiparasitic therapies to treat malaria, and leishmaniais, an infectious disease transmitted by sand flies.
The MERIT Award program was initiated by the National Institutes of Health in 1986. Since that time, the MERIT Award has become a symbol of scientific achievement in the research community. MERIT Awards are offered to a limited number of investigators who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity during their previous research endeavors and who are likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner in the future.
Dr. Patel's MERIT Award allows her to continue investigating fundamental mechanisms in gene expression and transcription, a crucial step in cell growth and development, for another five to ten years.
UMDNJ is the nation's largest free-standing public health sciences university with more than 5,700 students attending the state's three medical schools, its only dental school, a graduate school of biomedical sciences, a school of health related professions, a school of nursing and its only school of public health, on five campuses. Last year, there were more than two million patient visits to UMDNJ facilities and faculty at campuses in Newark, New Brunswick/Piscataway, Scotch Plains, Camden and Stratford. UMDNJ operates University Hospital, a Level I Trauma Center in Newark, and University Behavioral HealthCare, a mental health and addiction services network.