The Ellison Medical Foundation in Bethesda, Md., supports basic biomedical research on aging relevant to understanding lifespan development processes and age-related diseases and disabilities.
The foundation particularly wishes to stimulate new, creative research that might not be funded by traditional sources or that is often under-funded in the United States. In addition, the foundation fosters research by means of grants-in-aid on behalf of investigators to universities and laboratories within the United States.
To become a New Scholar, one must be invited to apply. They are typically nominated for the award for their outstanding promise in aging research. Such was the case for Chunyan Brian Bai, an assistant professor in genetics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
Bai came to the medical school's Department of Genetics in 2004 to set up a laboratory that focuses on the development of mammalian central nervous systems, in particular the genetic and cellular mechanisms controlling the generation of diverse neurons. One area of research is how different secreted signals establish neuronal progenitor identities and how they control the differentiation of neurons. His research has involved the spinal chord as a pathway to finding out why and how certain diseases might occur.
To help further his goals, Bai received a New Scholar Award in Aging from the Ellison Medical Foundation. He is one of 18 recipients of the foundation's 2007 New Scholar Award, which provides support for newly independent investigators in the first three years after their postdoctoral training, when they are establishing their own labs and their careers are at a vulnerable stage.
According to the foundation, these awards contribute to a safety net that allows bright young scientists to staff their laboratories, collect preliminary data and organize research programs of sufficient momentum to obtain ongoing support from other sources. Bai's award is worth up to $200,000 a year for up to four years.
"The award is an extension of a new direction for me in my postdoctoral training. It provides continual support in the initial phase of my independent research," he said. "It is exciting to receive this award."
He anticipates the funding will help his research move from the embryonic stage to the later phase of animal and human genetics research. "The award gives researchers the freedom to explore their interests. I’m most interested in age-related diseases and disabilities. What causes them? We can use genetics in many ways to find these answers."
Science in general and genetics in particular has captured his attention for years. Desiring to know the how and why of life, cells and diseases, Bai earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry and his doctorate in genetics.
While doing postdoctoral work at New York University School of Medicine, he became most interested in how animals and humans develop genetic abnormalities. He also became interested in finding therapeutic solutions to combat age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and certain cancers.
Bai's research topic, "Maintenance of Adult Neural Stem Cells," which led to the New Scholar Award, will allow him to investigate the factors that contribute to defects in nervous system function and how adult stem cells are regulated in vivo during the aging process.
Human aging is associated with a general decline of physiological functions, in particular the function of the nervous system, he said. Older people have greater difficulties in controlling muscle movements and a higher tendency of memory loss and cognitive impairments.
"Furthermore, age is the largest risk factor for many neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. It has been recognized in recent years that these changes are associated with the decrease in neural stem cell (NSC) function." he said. "I hope my research will lead to ways to approach newer degenerative diseases and provide insight into more effective and rational approaches toward restoration of nervous system function."
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