News in Brief

Immunologist Sankar Ghosh, PhD, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of achievements in original research. Dr. Ghosh, the Silverstein and Hutt Family Professor of Microbiology and chair of the Department of Microbiology & Immunology, studies the connection between the immune system and various diseases, from cancer to sepsis to diabetes and more. He is interested in deciphering the complexities of transcriptional regulation—the ways by which a cell regulates the conversion of DNA to RNA—to better understand the mechanisms of the immune system and the pathological changes that occur to its pathways in many diseases.

Three VP&S faculty members—Rene Hen, PhD, Elisa Konofagou, PhD, and Jennifer Manly, PhD—were elected to the National Academy of Medicine. Election to the academy is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service. Dr. Hen, professor of neuroscience and of molecular pharmacology & therapeutics (in psychiatry), was elected for discovering the role of neurogenesis in the mechanism of action of antidepressant medications and making seminal contributions to the understanding of serotonin receptors in health and disease. Dr. Konofagou, the Robert and Margaret Hariri Professor of Biomedical Engineering and professor of radiology (physics), was elected for leadership and innovation in ultrasound and other advanced imaging modalities and their application in the clinical management of such health care problems as cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer, through licensing to the major imaging companies. Dr. Manly, professor of neuropsychology (in neurology, the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center, and the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain), was elected for her pioneering work improving detection of cognitive impairment among racially, culturally, and socio-economically diverse adults that has had a profound impact on the field of neuropsychology and her visionary research on the social, biological, and behavioral pathways between early life education and later life cognitive function.

Columbia was awarded a $61.7 million NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award, the fourth award received since 2006. The grant supports the work of the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, which works in partnership with researchers and clinicians across the medical center, NewYork-Presbyterian, and the New York State Psychiatric Institute to support all phases of clinical and translational science. Columbia has received CTSA grant renewal every five years since the NIH program began in 2006. The latest grant means more than $200 million has been received to support the Irving Institute from 2006 through 2026. This year’s application for renewal received a perfect overall score from the NIH review committee.

The Columbia-Pfizer Clinical Trials Diversity Initiative has been established through a three-year, $10 million grant from Pfizer to help reduce health disparities by increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities in clinical trials and enhancing the diversity of clinical researchers. “People of different ethnicities can have different responses to the same medicine or treatment, so a lack of diversity among clinical trial participants means doctors cannot know if the treatment will be effective in all the patients they treat,” says Anil K. Rustgi, MD, interim executive vice president and dean and director of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center. The initiative will examine the barriers that prevent participation by individuals from underserved groups, expanding Columbia’s Community Health Workers Program network that connects with underserved populations and creates culturally sensitive engagement tools. To improve diversity among clinical research faculty and staff, Columbia will help build an additional pipeline of diverse clinical investigators through a new National Diversity Clinical Trials Leadership Program.

The fifth annual Velocity Ride to raise money for the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center raised $1.1 million in October. Some individuals participated in person on Velocity Day while others raised money through activities completed in advance. More than 540 people participated in this year’s fundraiser. Over the past five years, more than 3,000 people have participated in Velocity and raised $6 million for clinical care and cancer research at Columbia’s cancer center.

Two scientists will receive Columbia’s 2021 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for trailblazing work on messenger RNA vaccines for COVID-19. The prize is scheduled to be given to the recipients, Katalin Karikó, PhD, and Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, at a Jan. 5, 2022, ceremony. Decades of research on messenger RNA by Drs. Karikó and Weissman laid the foundation for the creation of the effective COVID-19 vaccines, the first fully approved vaccines that use mRNA. Developed less than a year after scientists in China originally identified and sequenced the virus, the vaccines demonstrate one of the main advantages of the mRNA platform: They are much quicker to produce than traditional vaccines. Previously, no new vaccine had been developed and approved in under four years. Dr. Karikó, from BioNTech in Germany and the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Weissman, from the University of Pennsylvania, are the 107th and 108th winners of the Horwitz Prize, which is awarded annually by Columbia University for groundbreaking work in medical science. Of the previous Horwitz Prize winners, 51 have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes.