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Dr. Fawaz Haj selected as Hellman Fellow

UC Davis awarded Hellman Faculty Foundation awards to 13 up and coming scholars on August 18th, 2008. Dr. Haj was selected as a Hellman Fellow and was awarded $26,000 for his work on the role of protein-tyrosine phosphatase 1B in diabetes.

“These grants are for newer professors who show the capacity for great distinction in their research,” said Bruce White, interim vice provost for academic personnel. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity for younger faculty, many of whom can use it as a springboard to larger funding in the years ahead.”

This spring, the foundation notified UC Davis it would receive $1.25 million in grant funding during the next five years. The goal is to provide support for the research of promising faculty at the assistant professor rank. At this career stage, faculty often do not have the research track record to establish themselves in the all-important grant world.

“There is less money available at this level, and many professors are competing for it,” White said.

Under the guidelines, the Hellman Fellows must have completed at least two years as an assistant professor and submitted a compelling research proposal. All the foundation asks in return — beyond adding to society’s knowledge base, of course — is that the recipients have lunch next spring with Warren and Chris Hellman, the philanthropists behind the foundation. Warren is an investment banker and UC Berkeley alumnus.

The foundation has supported similar programs at UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and UC San Diego — but not every university is chosen for this kind of support. What does getting Hellman funding mean for UC Davis? Above all, White said, it reflects highly on the institution’s academic pedigree.

“UC Davis is in the big leagues of attracting world-class young faculty,” he said. “We attribute this to the intellectual draw of the campus itself and the fact that the city of Davis is a very attractive place to live.”

One benefit of the funding is that UC Davis decides how to allocate it. The university, not the foundation, chose the specific research to be supported, White explained. The Academic Senate was instrumental in establishing a review panel to sift through 48 research proposals and select recipients and how much they would receive from the Hellman Foundation. “Everybody moved efficiently to make all this possible,” he noted.

And everybody on the receiving end welcomed the grants with great fanfare. The professors found out via e-mail that they had been selected as Hellman fellows.

UC Davis Nutrition Department Welcomes Faculty Member Dr. Fawaz Haj

The Department of Nutrition recently welcomed faculty member, Dr. Fawaz Haj with a reception held in his honor (photo at right). After receiving his doctorate from Oxford, Dr. Haj spent six years as a post doctorial fellow at Harvard. Dr. Haj brings a wealth of experience with him to UC Davis especially in the area of cell signaling, which is viewed as one of the essential components (along with system analysis/metabolomics) for understanding nutrition-related mechanisms in a 21st century context.

Dr. Haj is currently conducting research to understand the molecular signals responsible for metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.  He is particularly interested in protein-tyrosine phosphatases, or PTPs, enzymes which up- or down-regulate intracellular signals via dephosphorylation.

“For a long time, these enzymes were ignored,” Dr. Haj says.  “People had the misconception that phosphatases were boring.”

Each phosphatase has numerous substrates.  Studying such promiscuous enzymes, the thinking went, couldn´t possibly yield useful insight into metabolic regulation.  But then, two independent labs generated knockout mice deficient in protein-tyrosine phosphatase 1B.  Surprisingly, given that PTP1B has so many substrates, the two independently derived knockout strains shared the same phenotype of increased insulin sensitivity and resistance to diet-induced obesity.  PTP1B thus appeared to have very specific intracellular targets.  Additional work using knockout and RNAi approaches revealed the specificity of other phosphatases as well.

“This raised the hope that you could inhibit PTP1B in humans to increase insulin response and energy expenditure,” says Dr. Haj.  In 1999, he began exploring the workings of PTP1B as a postdoctoral scholar in the laboratory of Harvard´s Dr. Benjamin Neel.  Now, as a recently appointed Assistant Professor of Nutrition, he´s bringing his research to UC Davis.

To understand how phosphatases can be inhibited, Dr. Haj needs to understand their actions both at the whole-body level and within each cell.  “We´re using tissue-specific knockouts of PTPs to see what these enzymes do in a physiological setting,” he says.  His team will test the PTPs´ regulatory roles in peripheral insulin-responsive tissues.  They´ve already demonstrated that the liver is a site of PTP1B action.  Future work will let them see the level of communication and redundancy between tissues with respect to these enzymes.

In close collaboration with the laboratory of Dr. Philippe Bastiaens in Germany, Dr. Haj is using fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) to examine PTP regulation inside each cell.  This technique will help determine how enzymes with many substrates target their actions.  “We know that localizing PTPs within the cell controls which substrates they can access,” Dr. Haj says.  PTP1B is tethered to the endoplasmic reticulum, where it must wait for substrates to come to it.  This system of enzymatic regulation is rather like having sit-down service in a restaurant instead of a buffet.  FRET will show what “meals” arrive at the enzyme and which “waiters” bring them.

Although Dr. Haj is very busy setting up his lab and building collaborative relationships with scientists from Europe to China, he is keen to explore sit-down and buffet service in Davis at the macroscopic level.  He grew up in Lebanon and has lived in the UK and Boston, so he eats “everything” – but sushi is his favorite.

Shortly after joining the UC Davis Nutrition Department Dr. Haj was selected to be a 2008-2009 Hellman Fellow, which involves an award of funds to support his research on the role of protein-tyrosine phosphatase 1B in diabetes. The Hellman Family Foundation established the UC Davis Hellman Fellowship program to provide support and encouragement for the research of promising faculty at the Assistant Professor rank who exhibit potential for great distinction in their research.

By Erin Digitale

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