Whitehead Institute Member Ankur Jain Receives Packard Foundation Fellowship

Whitehead Institute Member Ankur Jain

Whitehead Institute Member Ankur Jain

Credit: Gretchen Ertl/Whitehead Institute

October 15, 2019

Tags: Jain LabRNANeurobiologyAwards + Announcements

Cambridge, MA -- The David & Lucile Packard Foundation today announced that Whitehead Institute Member Ankur Jain has been named a Packard Fellow for Science and Engineering. The Packard Foundation Fellowships are one of the most prestigious and well-funded non-governmental awards for early career scientists.

Each year, the Foundation invites 50 university presidents to nominate two early-career professors each from their institutions; from those 100 nominees, an Advisory Panel of distinguished scientists and engineers select the Fellows, who receive individual grants of $875,000 over five years. The 2019 class comprises 22 Fellows.

“We are extraordinarily pleased that Ankur has received such clear and substantive affirmation of his pioneering research on the role that RNAs play in devastating neurological diseases,” said Whitehead Institute director David C. Page. “This exciting work is at the forefront of soft-matter physics and cell biology, and could well open new chapters in RNA regulation specifically and in cell biology more broadly. 

“I am very grateful for the Packard Foundation’s support of our continued investigations of how RNA aggregation contributes to disease,” said Jain, who is also an assistant professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Jain has discovered that certain RNAs can form aggregates, clumping together into membrane-less gels. This process, known as phase separation, has been widely studied in proteins but not in RNA. He has found that RNA gels occur in, and could contribute to, a set of neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Huntington’s. These conditions, known as repeat expansion diseases, are marked by abnormal repetition of short sequences of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA and RNA. The RNAs containing these sequences are more likely to clump together 

The Fellowship will enable Jain to advance his research program around this phenomenon. “Although it is well-appreciated that RNA can form aggregates in test-tubes, the biological implications of this process are not yet known,” he explained. “The award will allow us to examine how RNA aggregates affect cell function and ultimately contribute to neurological disease. 

Jain joined Whitehead Institute and MIT in 2018, after conducting postdoctoral research in the lab of Ronald Vale at the University of California, San Francisco. He earned a doctorate in biophysics and computational biology at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 2013; and received his bachelor’s degree (with honors) in biotechnology and biochemical engineering from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur in 2007. 

Past Packard Fellows have gone on to receive a range of accolades, including Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics, the Fields Medal, the Alan T. Waterman Award, MacArthur Fellowships, and elections to the National Academies. They include 1989 Packard Fellow Frances Arnold, recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who chairs the Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel.

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