July 18, 2003

Cortez named Pew Scholar

Cortez named Pew Scholar


David Cortez, Ph.D., has been named a 2003 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. Cortez, assistant professor of Biochemistry and Ingram Assistant Professor of Cancer Research, is one of 20 young investigators selected this year who show outstanding promise in the basic and clinical sciences.

He is only the third Vanderbilt University researcher to be named a Pew Scholar since the awards began in 1985.

“The Pew award is an honor for me and my laboratory that will help us to quickly accomplish our research objectives,” Cortez said.

Each year The Pew Charitable Trusts invite leading research institutions to nominate one or two junior faculty members for the Pew Scholar awards.

The most promising researchers who display creativity in their work and who have made significant contributions to the scientific literature are named Pew Scholars. The awards, which include a grant of $240,000 over four years, are intended to provide a secure source of funding for researchers early in their careers as they establish their laboratories.

“More important than the resources is the recognition of being a Pew Scholar,” said Michael R. Waterman, Ph.D., Natalie Overall Warren Distinguished Professor and Chair of Biochemistry.

Cortez’s research focuses on the mechanisms by which cells maintain the integrity of their DNA. A cell’s genome is subjected to ongoing chemical damage during the normal course of cellular activities. A complex array of “surveillance” proteins exists to scan for and identify such DNA damage.

My lab is focusing on how the genome surveillance pathway functions when cells are perturbed by DNA damage,” Cortez said. He is especially interested in two proteins that regulate the surveillance pathway called ATM and ATR.

After detecting irregularities in DNA, the genomic surveillance system coordinates the cell’s response, which may include repair of the damaged DNA, halting of the cell cycle or initiating cell death.

Cortez became interested in the biochemistry of ATM and ATR during his post-doctoral studies.

It was known at the time that cells subjected to ionizing radiation modified the breast and ovarian cancer protein Brca1. Cortez observed that a cell line lacking the ATM protein failed to modify Brca1 when irradiated. “This experiment gave me a very interesting and important result and the rest of my post-doc was all from that one experiment,” Cortez said.

While ATM and ATR are known to be crucial in genome maintenance, exactly how they exert their effects is not known.

Cortez and colleagues induce DNA damage in cells to activate ATM and ATR and study the biochemical details of their function, including how they are regulated and what other cellular compounds serve as molecular targets for their direct action.

Cortez received his Ph.D. from Duke in 1997 and completed post-doctoral training in the laboratory of Stephen Elledge, Ph.D. at Baylor College of Medicine. He joined the Vanderbilt University faculty in August 2002. n