DALLAS - May 13, 2016 - UT Southwestern Medical Center geneticists Dr. Jonathan Cohen and Dr. Helen Hobbs have been awarded one of the nation's highest honors in biomedical science - the 2016 Passano Award - for developing and applying transformative genetics techniques to the understanding of lipid metabolism related to heart disease. The award, established in 1945, is presented each year by the Passano Foundation in recognition of exemplary U.S.-based research that leads to real-world applications in clinical medicine. Genetic work by Dr. Cohen and Dr. Hobbs, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Director of the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development, laid the foundation for a new class of drugs that treat high cholesterol, including two recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
"The pioneering research by Dr. Cohen and Dr. Hobbs has provided important novel insights into the genetic basis of cholesterol metabolism. These insights have made possible the development of categorically new therapeutic agents that can benefit vast numbers of people facing cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern, who holds the Philip O'Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.
Dr. Hobbs, Chief of Clinical Genetics and Professor of Internal Medicine and Molecular Genetics, and Dr. Cohen, Professor of Internal Medicine and with the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development, have worked together for nearly two decades and co-direct the Hobbs-Cohen Lab in the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development.
"It is an honor for my colleague, Dr. Cohen, and I to receive this prize in recognition of work carried out in conjunction with the many terrific students and fellows in our lab," said Dr. Hobbs, who holds the Eugene McDermott Distinguished Chair for the Study of Human Growth and Development, the Philip O'Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Chair in Developmental Biology, and the 1995 Dallas Heart Ball Chair in Cardiology Research.
"We are grateful to the Passano Foundation and humbled to join a distinguished list of prior recipients," said Dr. Cohen, who holds the C. Vincent Prothro Distinguished Chair in Human Nutrition Research.
Research by Dr. Hobbs and Dr. Cohen focuses on identifying genetic factors that contribute to variations in the levels of cholesterol in the blood, especially LDL cholesterol, often referred to as "bad cholesterol." High levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood increase the risk of a heart attack. The Hobbs-Cohen team discovered how certain genes predispose people to heart attacks and others protect - discoveries that pointed to new targets for drug development. By studying individuals with unusually high or unusually low serum lipid levels, the Hobbs-Cohen team revealed the central role of PCSK9, a protein that degrades receptors for LDL, and led to development of drugs that inactivate PCSK9, resulting in lowered LDL.
In addition, the Hobbs-Cohen laboratory identified the first genetic cause of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, an increasingly common disorder that is associated with cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Their discoveries grew out of the Dallas Heart Study, which provided a large database of individuals for whom researchers had both genetic information and information on physical traits to study. Co-founded by Dr. Hobbs, the Dallas Heart Study involves more than 6,000 ethnically diverse participants, with funding from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Now under way for more than 16 years, it has led to more than 200 published papers. Phase III of the study is now in the works, and will have a general scientific focus on healthy aging.
The connection between genetics and atherosclerosis - a clogging of the arteries that is a leading cause of heart attacks and stroke - was highlighted 40 years ago in the work by Nobel Laureates Dr. Michael S. Brown and Dr. Joseph Goldstein at UT Southwestern. Dr. Brown, Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease, and Dr. Goldstein, Chairman of the Department of Molecular Genetics, received the Passano Award in 1978 for their insights into cholesterol and atherosclerosis, which led to the development of statins, one of the most widely prescribed medicines in the world. Dr. Brown holds The W. A. (Monty) Moncrief Distinguished Chair in Cholesterol and Arteriosclerosis Research, and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine. Dr. Goldstein holds the Julie and Louis A. Beecherl, Jr. Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Research, and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine.
Other UT Southwestern faculty who were recipients of the Passano Award include:
- Dr. Eric Olson, Chairman of Molecular Biology and Director of the Hamon Center for Regenerative Science and Medicine at UT Southwestern, who received the 2012 Passano Award for identifying major genetic pathways that control the development of the heart and other muscles. Dr. Olson holds the Pogue Distinguished Chair in Research on Cardiac Birth Defects, the Annie and Willie Nelson Professorship in Stem Cell Research, and the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Science.
- Nobel Laureate Dr. Thomas C. Südhof, Adjunct Professor and former Chairman of Neuroscience, now at Stanford University, who received the 2008 Passano Award for the elucidation of the calcium-dependent mechanism
of neurotransmitter release in brain synapses;
- Nobel Laureate Dr. Alfred Goodman Gilman - former Chairman of Pharmacology, Dean of the UT Southwestern Medical School, and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at UT Southwestern Medical Center - who passed away last year, received the 1990 Passano Award for his seminal contributions to the understanding of signal transductions.
About UT Southwestern Medical Center
UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution's faculty includes many distinguished members, including six who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. The faculty of almost 2,800 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in about 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients and oversee approximately 2.2 million outpatient visits a year.