September 23, 2010

Wente receives MERIT award

Wente receives MERIT award

Vanderbilt University's Susan Wente, Ph.D., has received a MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to pursue her studies of “nuclear pore complexes,” which transport molecules between the cell's nucleus and cytoplasm.

Susan Wente, Ph.D.

Susan Wente, Ph.D.

Proteins made in the cytoplasm must move into the nucleus to “transcribe,” or copy, DNA into pieces of messenger RNA. The mRNAs, in turn, are transported back to the cytoplasm where they are “translated” into proteins.

This “elegant” system of spatially separating transcription from translation allows for careful regulation of the genome, and is “absolutely essential for cell function,” said Wente, associate vice chancellor for Research and professor of Cell & Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Wente and her colleagues have made several key discoveries that have advanced understanding of this transport machinery. The MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the NIH, will provide more than $2.2 million during the next five years, with the potential for a five-year extension, to support their continued investigations.

“We are so excited to receive this award — not only for its recognition of the insights made by my students, fellows, and research staff over the last 17 years — but especially for the support of our future work,” said Wente, who also is senior associate dean for Biomedical Sciences.

“This MERIT award is profound recognition of Dr. Wente's seminal contributions to the field of nuclear transport,” said William Tansey, Ph.D., interim chair of Cell & Developmental Biology.

“The pace and productivity of Dr. Wente's research program in this area is absolutely stellar, and it is most pleasing to see the NIH recognize her sustained successes in this way.”

Wente's inquiry into the molecular structure and function of the nuclear pore complex was first funded as a research project (R01) grant from the NIH in 1994.

In 1996, she and her colleagues discovered Gle1, a protein that helps shuttle mRNA from the nucleus to the cytoplasm through the nuclear pore complex. In recent years, they have discovered that Gle1 also plays a crucial role in regulating gene expression. Mutations in its gene have been linked to a rare motor neuron disease that causes fetal death.

Now they want to define the precise steps required for transport between the nucleus and cytoplasm, and determine how Gle1 “dysfunction” leads to disease.

According to the NIH, MERIT awards provide long-term stable support to investigators “whose research competence and productivity are distinctly superior.” The awards are designed to allow scientists to “be more adventurous in their lines of inquiry.”

Wente is one of 12 Vanderbilt scientists who have active MERIT awards.
The others are Randy Blakely, Ph.D., Paul Bock, Ph.D., Raymond Burk, M.D., Terence Dermody, M.D., Jonathan Gitlin, M.D., F. Peter (Fred) Guengerich, Ph.D., Tadashi Inagami, Ph.D., Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., L. Jackson Roberts II, M.D., David Wasserman, Ph.D., and Wei Zheng, M.D., Ph.D.