Last updated: March 12, 2012
Greece Awards Top Prize for Young Researchers to NHGRI Bioinformatics Expert
BETHESDA, Md. - Dr. Andreas Baxevanis of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been selected as one of four recipients of this year's prestigious Bodossaki Foundation Academic Prizes. The award is Greece's highest honor for young academics and scientists of Greek heritage throughout the world.
Baxevanis, 38, an expert in the burgeoning field of bioinformatics, which applies computer analysis to help identify genes in the three billion chemical units of DNA that are being deciphered by the Human Genome Project (HGP), received the prize from Greece President Konstantinos Stephanopoulos on June 5 at a ceremony in the Great Hall of the University of Athens.
The associate director of the NHGRI's Division of Intramural Research, Baxevanis is the son of Greek immigrants to the United States. "This award is truly a great honor and privilege for me," said Baxevanis. "But in many ways, the award should really go to my parents. Growing up during World War II, they didn't have the opportunity to finish their schooling. Nonetheless, they were very smart people, they valued education, and they instilled that value in me. Even though we were not a family of great means, they made the sacrifices necessary for me to go to the best colleges and pursue a career in research, wanting me to have a better quality of life than they did."
"Andy is exceptionally talented, not only as a scientist but also as team leader," said Dr. Jeffrey Trent, scientific director and head of intramural research at NHGRI. "His group's contributions to developing new gene-discovery tools and his collaborations with fellow scientists are a vital part of the research that goes on here."
Among the computer-based techniques that Baxevanis and the NHGRI team utilize is homology model building. It enables researchers to identify three-dimensional similarities between proteins that may be encoded by genes with very different chemical units. These chemical units are the recipes for proteins in the body. Another technique, called motif searching, can be used to look for similarities between proteins when no information about their three-dimensional structure is available.
"Mother Nature has been very frugal," said Baxevanis. "A limited number of protein folds have been identified, and they have been combined in various ways to make new proteins with new functions that a cell might need. These three dimensional structures are important, because the proteins have to be able to fit in the right place and in the right way in order to do their job."
Baxevanis' group also collaborates extensively with NHGRI scientists in identifying specific disease-causing genes. This research focuses on distilling as much information as possible from the sequence of the chemical units of the DNA, using computerized searching and analysis methods. Information gained this way can in turn help researchers narrow their search for genes and design laboratory experiments for determining the biological functions of the proteins for which these genes are coded.
"With a lot of the diseases that are studied here at NHGRI, we've been able to see what effect even a single amino acid change has on the entire structure of a protein," said Baxevanis. "So now we can understand what a particular mutation is actually doing, and hopefully that will give scientists some idea about what they might be able to do to develop appropriate therapies."
During his acceptance speech, Baxevanis announced a new NHGRI program that will provide Greek scientists with advanced training in bioinformatics at the NIH campus. "The hope is that these trainees will bring their knowledge back to Greece to help advance the country's science," Baxevanis said.
In addition to receiving the award from the Bodossaki Foundation, Baxevanis was appointed to the scientific advisory board of the newly created Institute for Medical Biology, which is part of the Greek National Academy and affiliated with the University of Athens.
A graduate of Cornell University, Baxevanis completed his doctoral work in physical biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University. He came to the National Institutes of Health in 1992 as a computational biology researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology Information. In 1996, he joined NHGRI as Director of Computational Genomics in the Institute's Genome Technology Branch.
Established in 1993, the Bodossaki Foundation Academic Prizes are awarded annually to scholars of Greek descent under the age of 40. The prizes honor promising young researchers in one of four academic fields: physical science and mathematics, applied science, social and economic sciences, and medicine and biology. Each prizewinner receives 8.7 million drachmas (about $25,000 in U.S. funds).
Other award recipients this year include Nancy Makri, professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for the physical science prize; Leandros Tassiulas, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, for the applied science prize; and Takis Tridimas, professor of European Community law at the University of Southampton in England, for the social science prize.