UCI researcher named Pew Scholar

Sheryl Tsai to receive $240,000 to pursue her work on drug discovery

Irvine, Calif., June 20, 2006 -- UC Irvine faculty member Sheryl Tsai has been named a Pew Scholar, one of only 15 researchers in the country to receive the honor this year. The distinction comes with a $240,000 award over four years to further her research.

Tsai, an assistant professor of molecular biology and biochemistry with a joint appointment in chemistry, was nominated for the award by UCI for her work in deciphering the biosynthesis of polyketides, a class of natural products derived from plants, fungi and bacteria that have been used extensively in drug development. Pew Scholars are chosen for excellence and innovation in their field through a highly competitive selection process. The program is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to the University of California, San Francisco.

"I am very honored not only to be named as a Pew Scholar, but also to have my work recognized by my peers at UCI who nominated me for the award," Tsai said. "These awards are an immeasurable help to scientists at the beginning of their careers who can use the funds to further nascent research."

The work in Tsai's laboratory focuses on decoding the mystery of polyketide synthases (PKSs), the enzymes that produce polyketide natural products. Polyketides are known to have more than a hundred functions in nature, from making flowers colorful to acting as defense mechanisms for microorganisms. Polyketides include many top-selling pharmaceuticals with annual sales of $30 billion. PKSs can produce overnight kilograms of these polyketide drugs, such as antibiotics, essentially turning the bacteria into a drug-making factory. In comparison, with traditional methods, these drugs will take months, if not years, to produce. Tsai works to solve crystal structures of PKSs, which can then be genetically modified to create new drug candidates for different diseases.

"Because bacteria do not have arthritis or diabetes, they would not evolutionally select polyketides that can be used for arthritis or diabetes treatment," Tsai said. "But we can coax the bacteria to do precisely that. These hundreds of 'unnatural natural products,' when coupled with the vigorous drug-discovery program on campus, will open the door to new polyketides with novel pharmaceutical activities in such areas as cancer therapeutics and anti-HIV drugs."

Recently, Tsai and her colleagues were able to solve the crystal structures of several key enzymes from the disease-causing agent for tuberculosis, which uniquely uses polyketides' natural properties to invade human hosts. The team has developed possible drug leads for eliminating the disease-causing organism. Her findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year. Tsai expects to begin testing the compounds in animals later this year.

"Sheryl is an excellent scientist and has accomplished a great deal in her short time at UCI," said Susan V. Bryant, dean of the School of Biological Sciences. "She easily bridges the gap between the physical and biological sciences and uses her expertise in both areas to rapidly move forward this important area of research. Thanks to her, the field is much closer to developing new drugs that can treat everything from cancer to high cholesterol."

"We are extremely proud of Sheryl," said Ronald J. Stern, dean of the School of Physical Sciences. "She truly understands the importance of interdisciplinary research. Her work blending chemistry with molecular biology has enormous potential to improve health care."

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The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences was launched in 1985 to provide support to investigators in the early states of their careers who show outstanding promise in the basic and clinical sciences. Since 1985, the Pew Charitable Trusts has invested more than $100 million to fund approximately 400 scholars.

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