Reddien wins Rita Allen Scholars award

August 21, 2006

Tags: Reddien LabAwards + Announcements

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (August 21, 2006) — Whitehead Member Peter Reddien is one of three recipients of the 2006 Rita Allen Foundation Scholars award. Reddien will receive $50,000 a year for three years. In addition, he has been chosen from among the awardees to be named the Milton E. Cassel Scholar, an additional honor that includes $5,000 extra per year.

“This is an honor,” says Reddien, “the recognition and support of the Foundation for our work will facilitate the ability to follow our curiosity about how stem cells are regulated.”

The Foundation supports researchers studying either cancer, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy. Reddien was chosen for the relevance his work has to cancer.

Reddien’s lab focuses on the planarian flatworm, a model organism whose astounding ability to regenerate entire body parts has long fascinated scientists. In fact, if you excise as little as 1/279th of the planarian’s body, an entirely new flatworm can grow from that single fragment. Roughly 10-30 percent of the planarian’s cells are stem cells, and Reddien and his team are investigating all of the molecular mechanisms that regulate these cells.

“Stem cells are thought to lie at the heart of a lot of cancers,” says Reddien. “In fact, this represents a largely new view of tumor development. Many tumor types are likely fueled not by the tumor mass itself, but by a tiny population of cancer-specific stem cells in the tumor. Chances are that these are cells that have acquired stem cell-like activity or stem cells that have lost some of their regulatory systems.”

In order to understand how stem cell regulation can go bad, it is essential to understand all the mechanisms that make these cells run efficiently in the first place. The planarian flatworm turns out to be one of the most efficient model organisms in which to analyze the process of stem cell regulation. “I can look at the regulation of the stem cells in the animals, as opposed to in a dish,” says Reddien. “And that’s a great advantage.”

In addition, planarian flatworms almost never get cancer—an aspect of their biology that is counter-intuitive. If an organism is susceptible to cancer every time a cell divides, and if planarian stem cells are constantly dividing, then these animals should be getting cancer at a higher rate than most other organisms for whom stem cell division is less frequent. But they don’t.

“Clearly, these stem cells are highly regulated,” says Reddien. “Understanding the basic science of this regulation will translate to numerous areas, including cancer.”

The Rita Allen Foundation was established in 1953. In 1969, a large proportion of the Allen estate was dedicated to advancing medical research. Over the last 30 years, the Foundation has supported more than 80 scientists.

Whitehead Founding Member Robert Weinberg was a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar from 1976 to 1980, while an associate professor at MIT.

Written by David Cameron.

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