National Institutes of Health Taps Department Researchers for "Merit" Awards

Two Wadsworth Center Scientists Awarded $3.2 Million Over Next Ten Years

Albany, June 26, 2001 – Two scientists in the Department's Wadsworth Center laboratories have received prestigious awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for 10 years of continuous funding. Marlene Belfort, Ph.D., a molecular geneticist, and Conly Rieder, Ph.D., a cell biologist, have been awarded 2001 MERIT Awards from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). The awards are for at least $3.2 million over a decade to support their research.

NIGMS is a division of NIH which supports basic biomedical research that is not targeted to specific diseases or disorders. Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Awards provide long–term grant support to investigators with an impressive record of scientific achievement in a research area of special importance or promise. Researchers may not apply for this status, but are identified from the pool of all eligible grants for funding by NIGMS in a given fiscal year, as many as 3,500 last year.

"Under Governor Pataki's leadership, the Wadsworth Center laboratories has flourished as a leader in the areas of emerging infections, genetics, nanobiotechnology, molecular imaging, bioinformatics and environmental science," State Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello, M.D., M.P.H., Dr.P.H.. said. "With these MERIT Awards, the National Institutes of Health recognizes the high quality of research conducted by Wadsworth Center scientists. Dr. Marlene Belfort and Dr. Conly Rieder are acknowledged leaders in their fields and epitomize the intellectual vigor of New York State's biomedical research community."

A MERIT Award is a rare enough event. That two of the 16 MERIT Awards granted nationally by NIGMS this year were conferred on investigators at the same institution "is definitely unusual and significant," according to Dr. James Deatherage, a program director in the NIGMS Cell Biology Branch, which recommended Dr. Rieder for the award.

Dr. Belfort studies genetic elements known as introns, segments of DNA that interrupt genes and can disrupt the flow of genetic information. She was one of the discoverers of introns in bacteria and has made major contributions to unraveling their structure and function. Sometimes called junk DNA, these dynamic elements appear in organisms across all biological kingdoms, making their study of evolutionary importance. They are of medical relevance, too, as certain introns are related to mobile sequences that constitute much of the human genome and influence its composition, arrangement and function in health and disease.

Frequently published in high–visibility journals, Dr. Belfort is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and director of Wadsworth Center's Division of Genetic Disorders. She holds patents for how introns and similar protein–based elements, inteins, can be used in biotechnology.

Dr. Marcus Rhoades, program director for the NIGMS division recommending Dr. Belfort's MERIT, called her research "particularly significant as it has provided insights into the evolution of the genomes of humans and other higher organisms."

Dr. Rieder, chief of Wadsworth's Laboratory of Cellular Regulation, studies how vertebrate cells divide and how entry into and progress through cell division (mitosis) is controlled and regulated. Mitosis is carefully governed because mistakes lead to the production of cells with uneven numbers of chromosomes, the cause of many birth defects and cancers.

Using a combination of sophisticated instrumentation that allows molecules and organelles in living cells to be imaged prior to, during and after destroying them with a laser beam, Dr. Rieder has answered several fundamental and longstanding questions about how cells divide. His visually striking and scientifically rich movies of mitosis, and still images of the mitotic spindle, have won several international awards. They also routinely have appeared on the covers of books and journals as well as in educational films and television shows (most recently The X–Files).

Drs. Belfort and Rieder, who have been funded by the National Institutes of Health for nearly 20 years, both hold faculty appointments in the University at Albany's School of Public Health, Department of Biomedical Sciences.

Three other Wadsworth investigators have held NIH MERIT Awards since 1990; Dr. Joachim Frank for structural studies of the ribosome, Dr. Lorraine Flaherty for the investigation of immunogenetics in mice, and Dr. David Martin for studies of the control mechanisms of a neurotransmitter.

Wadsworth Center is the public health and research laboratory of the New York State Department of Health. Wadsworth's role in detecting and responding to disease threats, and ensuring the quality of laboratory services received by state residents, is complemented by a longstanding commitment to biomedical and environmental research.

6/26/01–66 OPA