President's Research Council honors pair as Distinguished Researchers

By Lin Lofley

Dr. Arun Radhakrishnan, Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics, and Dr. Puneeth Iyengar, Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology, shared the 2012 Distinguished Researcher Awards presented by the President’s Research Council.

Each received a $65,000 award at the council’s annual dinner, held May 15 on the Fourteenth Floor of the T. Boone Pickens Biomedical Building.

Dr. Arun Radhakrishnan (left) and Dr. Puneeth Iyengar have been selected to receive the 2012 Distinguished Researcher Awards presented by the President’s Research Council.

“Ever since it was founded 27 years ago by great UT Southwestern friends Cece Smith and Ford Lacy, the President’s Research Council has been a vital forum for interested members of our community to share in the excitement of research on the campus, hearing presentations from many of our most innovative faculty,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern Medical Center.

“In that time the PRC has also awarded more than $2.3 million in research funds, in each instance seeking to have its support applied where it can make the most difference in faculty establishing new research programs. This year once again, the Council has chosen to support two investigators applying creative approaches to address truly important questions.”

Dr. Radhakrishnan is studying how cholesterol-sensing membrane proteins measure the concentration of cholesterol in endoplasmic reticulum (ER) membranes. Using purified ER membranes, he and his research team have shown that these sensors respond in a switch-like fashion to small changes in membrane cholesterol to regulate cholesterol levels in cells.

“I’m delighted that the President’s Research Council has chosen me for this honor,” said Dr. Radhakrishnan, who joined the faculty in 2011 and was previously a faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical College and a postdoctoral fellow at UT Southwestern. “I just returned to the UT Southwestern community a few months ago and have already benefited from the collaborative atmosphere here.”

Dr. Radhakrishnan mentioned in particular the invaluable support he has received from Nobel laureates Dr. Michael Brown and Dr. Joseph Goldstein.

In a remarkable study, he recently discovered that soluble cholesterol-binding bacterial toxins share the same switch-like response in binding to cholesterol-containing membranes. The next step is to use much simpler-to-study soluble toxins as a model system to uncover the general molecular mechanism behind cholesterol-sensing in cell membranes.

“Understanding in molecular detail how cholesterol sensors ensure proper levels of cholesterol in cells is the key to possibly designing the next generation of cholesterol-lowering drugs,” Dr. Radhakrishnan said. “Recognition and support from the PRC is a great starting point toward this goal.”

Dr. Iyengar, who joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 2010, is studying cachexia – the massive loss of fat and muscle – that is found in many disease states, including cancer, infectious disease, liver disease, and heart failure.

“Our study goals in this research are twofold,” he said, “to utilize preclinical models in determining the tissues and biochemical pathways that effective drugs may target to limit cancer-associated cachexia and promote survival, and to identify a biologic rationale for why tumors may benefit from fat wasting in cancer-associated cachexia with regards to increased growth. Our understanding of cachexia may also add to our knowledge of the mechanisms leading to obesity, the opposite condition to cachexia.”

“My research has been helped immeasurably by Drs. Philipp Scherer, John Minna, and Adi Gazdar,” said Dr. Iyengar, who earned his doctorate and medical degrees from Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a bachelor’s degree in science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I also thank my co-principal investigator, Dr. Rodney Infante, and the rest of our lab for their efforts.”