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Two Illinois professors honored by Howard Hughes Medical Institute

3/26/2009 | Phil Ciciora, News Editor | 217-333-2177;

[ Email | Share ] CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Two University of Illinois professors, Martin D. Burke, a professor of chemistry, and Maria Spies, a professor of biochemistry, have been named Howard Hughes Medical Institute early career scientists.

Burke and Spies are among 50 scientists chosen from a national competition of more than 2,000 applicants to identify the best biomedical researchers and provide them with flexible funding to develop scientific programs of exceptional merit. HHMI sought scientists in all areas of basic biological and biomedical research, and in areas of chemistry, physics, computer science and engineering that are directly related to biology or medicine.

The award allows “promising scientists to pursue their best ideas during this early stage of their careers,” said Thomas R. Cech, the president of the institute.

The Maryland-based institute is a private philanthropy dedicated to supporting biomedical research and science education in the United States.

Each early career scientist is awarded his or her full salary, benefits and a research budget of $1.5 million over the six-year appointment. The institute also will cover other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment, allowing the researchers to devote their time and energy to making discoveries in the laboratory and mentoring the next generation of scientists.

Martin Burke
Martin Burke

Burke excels at creating ways to generate diverse chemical compounds, including “small molecules that can imitate proteins that malfunction in diseases,” the institute said.

Burke calls the compounds “molecular prosthetics” because he hopes they may be able to help a person compensate for missing or dysfunctional proteins, much like a prosthetic limb can substitute for one lost to injury or disease. Burke believes such a chemical prosthesis could be the prototype for treating a number of diseases caused by protein deficiencies, including cystic fibrosis.

“The department of chemistry is very proud of Marty’s selection as an HHMI early career scientist,” Illinois chemistry department head Steven C. Zimmerman said. “He offers a rare combination of talents. He has demonstrated considerable skill as a synthetic organic chemist, having developed powerful new methods for preparing complex natural products and their analogs. At the same time, thanks to his training as a medical doctor, he is driven to find new therapeutic approaches to disease that harness his synthetic skills but with an eye toward what is likely to be best for the patient.”

Maria Spies
Maria Spies

As an HHMI early career scientist, Spies will investigate what happens when DNA helicases, the molecular motors that drive DNA repair mechanisms, “find problem locations in the genome where their activity is needed,” HHMI officials said in announcing the award. According to the institute, Spies’ research is particularly promising because helicases are thought to be involved in breast and ovarian cancer, premature aging, stunted growth and ultra-sensitivity to sunlight.

“Dr. Spies’ selection as an HHMI early career scientist is a wonderful and well-deserved recognition of her current and potential contributions to this area,” said professor of biochemistry and department head Colin A. Wraight. “She has done a fabulous job at setting up her independent research program at Illinois, and her work on several helicases, and on mediator proteins of homologous recombination – a key element of high fidelity DNA repair – has already drawn a lot of attention. Maria’s research is an elegant combination of classical and single-molecule biochemistry, and has important implications for basic science and medical understanding.”

“These scientists are at the early stage of their careers, when they are full of energy and not afraid to try something new,” said Jack Dixon, vice president and chief scientific officer of the institute. “They have already demonstrated that they are not apt to play it safe – and we hope they will continue to do something really

Four other UI faculty members have received HHMI awards. Chemistry professor Yi Lu was named an HHMI professor in 2002; physics professor Taekjip Ha became an HHMI investigator in 2005; and cell and developmental biology professor Phillip A. Newmark and chemistry professor Wilfred A. van der Donk were named HHMI investigators in 2008. The Urbana campus has received numerous educational grants from the institute, beginning in 1993.

Burke and Spies will begin their six-year, non-renewable appointments to HHMI in September 2009.

More information can be found on the HHMI Web site:

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Editor's note: The HHMI release is available at The HHMI communications contact is Jim Keeley; he can be reached at; 301-215-8858.

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