Salil Lachke, a University of Delaware biologist whose research is yielding new discoveries about the world's leading causes of blindness, has been named a 2012 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Lachke is one of 22 scholars selected across the United States, and the first University of Delaware professor to receive the award, which recognizes the nation's most innovative young researchers in medicine or the biomedical sciences.
The program, which was launched in 1985, is rigorously competitive, and recipients receive $240,000 over four years to pursue their research without restriction.
To be considered, applicants from all areas of the physical and life sciences related to biomedical study must be nominated by an invited institution and demonstrate both excellence and innovation in their research. This year, 179 institutions were requested to nominate a candidate, and 134 eligible nominations were received.
The 2012 scholars join a prestigious community that includes Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows and recipients of the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award.
"During these challenging budgetary times when traditional sources of funding are becoming even harder for scientists to obtain, we are proud to back our country's most promising scientists," said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts. "This funding comes at points in the scholars' professional lives when they often are the most innovative. While this program is a bold investment for us, it has paid incalculable dividends due to our scholars' record of producing groundbreaking research."
Lachke is exploring the molecular defects that cause eye disorders such as cataracts and glaucoma. Normal vision depends on the development of elongated fiber cells in the eye that form the bulk of the lens. If these cells do not form correctly, the lens will turn opaque, forming a cataract that could cause blindness.
Lachke has identified a gene, TDRD7, which when mutated can lead to cataracts and glaucoma in mice and in humans. TDRD7 encodes a protein that binds to ribonucleic (RNA) messages — in particular, it recognizes RNA messages that encode proteins that are essential to create a transparent lens.
He will use microscopy and molecular biology to detect the partners that interact with TDRD7 and will determine whether the protein's ability to move these RNAs to specific regions within the fiber cell is key to its role in lens development. He will also assess whether this system operates in the retina as well as the lens, and whether its malfunction is responsible for retinal disease.
"It's a great honor to be named a Pew Scholar, a family of scientists that includes Nobel Laureates. This is stellar company to be associated with," Lachke said.
Lachke has made great strides since his appointment to the faculty of the UD Department of Biological Sciences last year. A developmental biologist who uses systems-based approaches, he is actively collaborating with researchers around the globe, from human geneticists to bioinformaticists, to expedite gene discoveries associated with eye disease.
The lens of the eye has been a subject of developmental biology research since 1902, according to Lachke, yet when he entered the field in 2003, only 20-odd genes associated with human congenital primary cataract had been identified, largely through indirect methods.
A novel online gene discovery tool he has developed and which is hosted at the UD Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, called "iSyTE" (for "Integrated Systems Tool for Eye gene discovery"), will help scientists more rapidly home in on previously unknown eye-associated genes and their functions.
Within the past three years, Lachke's research using iSyTE has already led to the discovery of three new cataract associated genes, and many more are in the pipeline.
"Identifying new genes associated with eye diseases will help us understand how the eye develops and functions, in turn providing critical insights for regenerative therapies and targets," Lachke said.
Lachke earned his doctorate in biology at the University of Iowa in 2003. He completed postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital before joining the UD faculty in 2011.