The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the Simons Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have given Cole Haynes, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular, cell and cancer biology, an award for his work on mitochondria and aging.
Besides Haynes, 84 other faculty scholars, who showed potential to make innovative contributions to their fields, were awarded the early-career scientists’ prizes. Haynes will receive $900,000 over the next five years as part of the $83 million program.
“I am thrilled and certainly grateful that HHMI, along with the Simons and Gates foundations, have recognized my lab’s work dealing with cellular adaptations to mitochondrial dysfunction,” Haynes, who recently joined Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said in a press release. “The award will allow us to expand our research into how deleterious mitochondrial genomes accumulate and contribute to aging and cancer,” he said.
In the past 20 years, the United States has witnessed a visible decline in National Institutes of Health (NIH) research award success rates for scientists, as well as an increase in the average age at which scholars are successful in receiving their first individual grants. This has led to a more uncertain trajectory in scientific careers. The HHMI, Simons & Gates joint program is an effort to create a faculty scholars program that responds to growing concerns about the significant challenges early-career scientists face.
With this funding Haynes will investigate how deletions in mitochondrial DNA, which typically make less than 1% of mitochondrial genome population in a cell, accumulate over time and may lead to aging. He currently is investigating the sensors and tools used by cells to monitor mitochondria and, when defective, the strategies cells use to ensure cell survival and mitochondrial recovery.
“There aren’t a lot of models for studying this,” Haynes said. “This funding will allow us to take some chances on some long-term projects that we might not have done otherwise.”
Throughout his career Haynes has focused on how cells and organisms adapt to mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondrial are the cell’s small power plants that are responsible for many cellular activities, as well as the primary source of energy for the cell. Effects of aging often are linked back to breakdown in mitochondrial function. Mitochondrial function also is connected with some metabolic disorders, however, such as Parkinson’s disease, bacterial infections, and certain cancers.
“Dr. Haynes’ highly original work on the role of mitochondrial DNA in normal aging and in disease is of keen interest both to basic science and to medicine,” said Terence R. Flotte, MD, the Celia and Isaac Haidak Professor of Medical Education and executive deputy chancellor, provost and dean of the School of Medicine. “Over time, most mitochondrial gene functions have been superseded by nuclear-encoded genes. The 13 genes whose functions remain encoded in mitochondria are exceptionally critical, or else there would not have been such strong evolutionary pressure for these genes to remain there. This award demonstrates that the best way to cultivate foundational science like this is to invest in scientists like Dr. Haynes,” Flotte said.
Early-career scientists who have between four and 10 years of experience as faculty members are eligible to apply for this competition. Applicants are judged for their potential for significant research productivity and originality, and by the results of their independent research program and future research plans.