The winners of the 2013 Helen Carr Peake Prizes are Ms. Gabrielle R. Merchant, a doctoral student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology; Mr. Thomas Gurry, a doctoral student in the Computational and Systems Biology Initiative; and Ms. Audrey Fan, a doctoral student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. All of the students won Peake recognition as a result of outstanding research projects seeking to improve technology used in the diagnosis and treatment of human health problems. Ms. Merchant was awarded the 2013-2014 Research Assistantship, and does her work under the co-supervision of John J. Rosowski, Professor of Otology and Laryngology and Health Sciences & Technology, and Hideko H. Nakajima, Assistant Professor of Otology and Laryngology at Harvard Medical School. Mr. Gurry was awarded the 2013-2014 Research Assistantship, and his work is supervised by Collin M. Stultz, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and an Associate Professor in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Ms. Fan was awarded the Helen Carr Peake Research Prize, and her work is supervised by Elfar Adalsteinsson, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Associate Professor of Health Sciences and Technology.
Ms. Merchant’s particular interest is in improving patient care and rehabilitation through translational hearing research. Her work focuses on auditory mechanics, how pathology affects these mechanics, and how that information can be best used to improve diagnostics. Current clinical practice cannot distinguish between the multiple pathologies that produce conductive hearing loss in patients with an intact tympanic membrane and a well-aerated middle ear. The lack of a more effective non-surgical diagnostic procedure leads to unnecessary surgery and limits the accuracy of information available during pre-surgical consultations. Ms. Merchant’s doctoral research focuses on determining whether a non-invasive diagnostic method, ear-canal acoustic reflectance (ECR), is a solution to this problem. This involves making ECR measurements in patients, in well-controlled human cadaveric preparations, and in computational models. This work also involves the testing of a novel wider-band reflectance system that performs at higher frequencies than current systems and the development of unique algorithms to detect pathologies. Her plan upon completion of my doctorate is to enter a clinical doctoral training program in Audiology, where she can then learn the diagnostic, rehabilitation and treatment skills necessary in that profession. Ms. Merchant’s ultimate goal is to be an academic audiologist performing translational research while teaching and seeing patients.
Mr. Gurry works to develop tools that assist in the rational design of drug molecules for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. These diseases involve a class of proteins called intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs), which are so-named because they adopt a large number of different shapes, and therefore cannot be studied by traditional methods. However, these proteins have been found to form multimers and aggregates in which the individual proteins adopt stable, ordered structures, consisting primarily of either helices or strands. Mr. Gurry’s work focuses on applying and developing computational tools to study the formation of these ordered structures in IDPs, such that their formation can be modulated by small drug molecules. In a recently published article [Gurry et al., JACS 135 (10): 3865–3872 (2013)], he has found that α-synuclein (the culprit protein in Parkinson’s disease) is mostly disordered but can form a small amount of multimers involving both helical- and strand-based multimers, and that the helical multimers bury parts of the protein that are thought to be involved in the formation of toxic strand-based aggregates. This is significant as it bridges the gap between two competing views in the field, namely that the protein is disordered versus it being predominantly helical, and provides a mechanism for the resistance to aggregation of these helical species, which were independently shown to resist aggregation, making them potentially very important therapeutic targets. He hopes to apply his work in the future in the biotech industry as a computational biologist.
Ms. Fan’s doctoral research is focused on creating new MRI technology to image oxygen consumption in the human brain. Reliable information about brain oxygenation can provide critical information to manage diseases in which the brain’s oxygen supply is disturbed, including stroke and tumor. Unfortunately, to date there is no feasible way to image oxygenation in clinical settings. To address this unmet clinical need, Ms. Fan is developing a novel MRI acquisition and image processing for use by clinicians. She engineered a new method, known as phase-based regional oxygenation metabolism (PROM), to quantify tissue rates of oxygen consumption from baseline MRI scans. Ms. Fan demonstrated the method in volunteers at a 3 Tesla MRI scanner, and was able to detect normal regional variations between brain lobes that were consistent with past literature. This study was recently published in a journal issue by the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. The future vision is for radiologists to be able to look at a 3-dimensional brain venogram, read the oxygenation level along each cerebral vessel, and immediately identify brain regions with altered oxygenation. If successful, her research would have broad impact by fulfilling a clinical need for robust oxygenation imaging to identify appropriate therapies for stroke patients with stroke and tumor, as well as uncover new biology of subtle metabolic changes underlying neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
The Helen Carr Peake Fund, which supports these awards, was established to honor the late wife of Professor William T. Peake. This year’s recipients were selected by a committee consisting of Professor Karl K. Berggren, Professor Bertrand A. R. Delgutte, Professor Jongyoon Han, Professor George C. Verghese (Committee Chair), and RLE Director Yoel Fink.