Terry Orr-Weaver receives American Cancer Society award

October 2, 2006

Tags: Orr-Weaver LabAwards + Announcements

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Whitehead Member Terry Orr-Weaver is the newest American Cancer Society research professor, chosen for her seminal contributions to cancer biology. Orr-Weaver, who is the sole winner of the award this year, will receive $400,000 over five years with the option to renew once.

“Dr. Orr-Weaver received this prestigious award because she is a leader in her field,” says Dr. Donella J. Wilson, research promotion and communication director for the American Cancer Society. “She also mentors young scientists by encouraging lab members to discuss their ideas, methodology and results, which expands the impact of her work.”

The appointment highlights the importance of conducting basic research on model organisms to elucidate key processes in human cells. Orr-Weaver studies cell division in fruit flies, which share the regulatory genes for cell division with humans. Her lab has identified important mechanisms that ensure accurate gene copy number during DNA replication and chromosome segregation. Cells can become cancerous if these mechanisms go awry.

For example, some cancers have been linked to mutations in the human version of a fly gene called double parked (dup), also known as cdt1 in some species, which determines whether DNA replication will begin. Orr-Weaver’s lab identified the fly and human genes in 2000, and other labs confirmed the role in human cells.

“Working with a model organism made this discovery possible, as we had special tools at our disposal,” says Orr-Weaver. “There’s a direct link between basic research and our understanding of human disease.”

Researchers in Orr-Weaver’s lab also identified a glue-like protein called MEI-S332 that holds chromosomes together after DNA replication. The isolation of the protein was published in Cell in 1995, and subsequently the Orr-Weaver lab has unraveled mechanisms that control the localization of this protein on chromosomes. Like dup, the MEI-S332 glue is found in mammalian cells. If it malfunctions, dividing cells receive too many, or too few, chromosomes.

“Breast cancer cells contain high levels of MEI-S332,” says Orr-Weaver. “Funding from the American Cancer Society will allow us to investigate this link and probe the potential role of MEI-S332 in the onset of cancer.”

“Terry’s contributions to our understanding of meiosis and mitosis are profound,” says Whitehead Director David Page. “The ACS professorship explicitly recognizes the breadth of impact of Terry’s work in Drosophila.”

In addition to being a Member of Whitehead Institute, Orr-Weaver is a professor of biology at MIT. She came to Whitehead Institute and MIT in 1987, and held the Latham Family Career Development Chair from 1991 to 1994. Orr-Weaver received her PhD in biological chemistry from Harvard University in 1984, and was named a Jane Coffin Child Memorial Fund Fellow in 1984 and a Searle Scholar in 1988. She has served as chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation and president of the Genetics Society of America. In 2006, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Past Whitehead recipients of the American Cancer Society’s research professorships include Members Gerald Fink and Robert Weinberg.

Written by Alyssa Kneller.

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