Hopkins cancer researcher Victor E. Velculescu is the recipient of the Amersham Pharmacia Biotech and Science Prize for Young Scientists for his work in developing a method to rapidly identify disease-related genes and measure gene expression. His winning essay appears in the Nov. 19 issue of Science.
Velculescu was chosen for his revolutionary thesis work in developing a partially computerized method called SAGE, for Serial Analysis of Gene Expression, that is used to speed the discovery of genes involved in a variety of diseases, including cancer, as well as to interpret the large amounts of gene-sequencing data coming from the Human Genome Project.
"Of the approximately 10,000 genes in the human genome, only a fraction are thought to be active in each type of cell, but there are several thousand different types of cells in the human body, and each has a unique pattern of gene expression," Velculescu says. "This technology allows us to study thousands of genes simultaneously, measure their expression and quickly identify the genetic differences between normal and tumor cells."
Just as the accumulated bar code entries provide a picture of a store's high- and low-volume sales items, SAGE gives a picture of the cell's gene expression pattern. A product frequently purchased would be equivalent to a high expression; one rarely purchased amounts to low expression.
With SAGE technology, researchers assign to each gene a specific sequence of 10 base pairs, using a combination of adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymidine, the building blocks of DNA. These sequences are the "bar codes" that represent individual genes. The bar codes are then identified and counted by sophisticated sequencing and computer methods.
"SAGE should really benefit the analyses of human diseases," says Kenneth Kinzler, professor of oncology at the Oncology Center. "It has already led to important insights into human cancer."
Since 1995, the Amersham Pharmacia Biotech and Science Prize has been awarded to the best young scientists at the beginning of their careers and recognizes their outstanding work in the field of molecular biology. Applicants from around the world compete for regional prizes and a grand prize. The $25,000 grand prize will be given to Velculescu at an awards ceremony at the BioMedical Centre of Uppsala University in Sweden on Dec. 9, coinciding with the Nobel Prize ceremonies.
Twenty-nine-year-old Velculescu, who was born in Romania and is a graduate of Stanford University, received his doctorate in 1998 and his medical degree in 1999 from the School of Medicine. His work on the development of SAGE was performed in the laboratory of Kenneth Kinzler. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Bert Vogelstein, Clayton Professor of Oncology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.