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Stellar Science Showcased at Malaniak Awards

Potential pathways to gaining the scientific upper hand over challenging diseases were showcased at the 2019 Bohdan (Danny) Malaniak Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Research Jan. 30 at a well-attended event held in the North Tower conference rooms. Connie Ha, PhD, and Rebecca Porritt, PhD, won top honors along with $3,000 prizes for their studies.

Rebecca Porritt, PhD, (left) and Connie Ha, PhD, are the winners of the annual Bohdan (Danny) Malaniak Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Research.

Ha and Porritt were among four finalists who presented their research to a 12-member panel of Cedars-Sinai investigators who evaluated the work based on scientific content, originality and clarity of presentation. Now in its 12th year, the award was created to foster basic and translational research and is named after research proponent Danny Malaniak, a longtime member of Cedars-Sinai's leadership team who died in 2013.

"The Malaniak Review Committee was very impressed with the high caliber of groundbreaking research that our postdoctoral fellows are conducting with the encouragement of their mentors," said event moderator and Malaniak Award Committee Chair Odelia Cooper, MD, associate professor of Medicine and director of the Clinical and Translational Research Center. "Our awardees are recognized for exemplifying the mission of Cedars-Sinai in advancing the scientific frontier, ultimately translating discoveries into cures for patients."

Cooper also applauded the continued support of the Malaniak family; Shlomo Melmed, MB, ChB, professor of Medicine, executive vice president of Academic Affairs and dean of the medical faculty; Ravi Thadhani, MD, professor of Biomedical Sciences and vice dean of Research and Education; and Nicole Leonard, vice president and associate dean of Research.

Ha's winning research focused on creeping fat, a condition that occurs in Crohn's disease that's not well understood and may contribute to intestinal fibrosis (a complication that can cause intestinal obstruction and other debilitating symptoms). Ha used a combination of microbiology techniques and advanced sequencing technologies to examine what factors distinguish creeping fat from neighboring healthy fat tissue. Her results point to a bacterial target and cellular pathway in creeping fat that may influence and/or mimic the fibrosis process in Crohn's disease patients who've exhausted most treatment options.

Ha plans to build on this research, with an eye toward developing new therapeutic approaches for managing Crohn's disease. Ha is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Suzanne Devkota, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine and director of Microbiome Research at the F. Widjaja Foundation Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute.

The aim of Porritt's winning entry was to investigate the role receptor integrating protein 2 (RIP2) plays in controlling chronic inflammatory diseases caused by T helper 17 (Th17) cells. Th17 cells are important components of the body's protective response to certain disease-causing microorganisms. However, aberrant Th17 cell responses can lead to chronic inflammatory diseases such as lung fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and atherosclerosis. In light of Th17 cells' dichotomous functions, Porritt's study homed in on what determines if Th17 cells will be protective or pathogenic. Using mouse models, her research showed that a RIP2 deficiency drives development of aberrant Th17 cell responses, resulting in chronic inflammation. Porritt said this finding could have wide-reaching implications for future treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases.

Porritt is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Moshe Arditi, MD, professor of Pediatrics and director of the Infectious and Immunologic Disorders Translational Research Center in the Department of Biomedical Sciences. Her mentor is Kenichi Shimada, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics.

The two other finalists were postdoctoral scientists Francesca Piccinini, PhD, from the lab of Richard Bergman, PhD, director of the Sports Spectacular Diabetes and Obesity Wellness and Research Center and the Alfred Jay Firestein Chair in Diabetes Research; and Changfu Yao, PhD, under the mentorship of Barry Stripp, PhD, professor of Medicine and director of pulmonary stem cell research.

Applications for the 2020 Malaniak Award will be available in mid-October on the Cedars-Sinai research award programs' intranet site.

The IACUC number for animal subjects in research referenced in this article is 8314. The IRB number for human subjects in research referenced in this article is 48577.