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Two Honors for BC’s Weerapana

Chemist earns a pair of young investigator awards for her protein research

Eranthie Weerapana (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Dec. 15, 2011

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Eranthie Weerapana has been awarded a pair of prestigious young investigator awards to support her research into identifying new protein activities implicated in cancer and aging, and developing small molecules to perturb these activities within a cellular environment.

Weerapana, a chemical biologist in her second year at BC, described her experimental research as “highly interdisciplinary” – pushing the science of synthetic and analytical chemistry to explore and better understand biological systems.

Foundations that specialize in supporting daring and innovative research call the work of Weerapana and her peers “high risk/high reward” science that could lead to dramatic advances in science and medicine.

The Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation recently honored Weerapana with a Smith Family Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research. The three-year, $300,000 grant is part of a program designed to encourage accomplished junior faculty as they pursue research that has the potential to yield medical breakthroughs.

Likewise, the three-year, $450,000 Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award Weerapana received took note of her lab’s cutting-edge research for its promise to make significant inroads in the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of cancer.

Weerapana, who received her doctorate from MIT, said that without foundations like the Smith Family Foundation or the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, young scientists pursuing new avenues to discovery would face steep financial barriers.

“I appreciate that these organizations support young investigators and are open to investing in high risk/high reward projects that traditional funding sources are reluctant to fund,” said Weerapana. “These foundations give us a chance to go out on a limb and explore new approaches to catalyze discoveries that would be slow to happen under traditional funding scenarios.”

Weerapana and her fellow honorees have demonstrated promising early findings and now, thanks to these foundations, can pursue additional advances and new breakthroughs.

Weerapana’s six-member research group takes a multidisciplinary approach, using the tools of synthetic chemistry, biochemistry and mass spectrometry to investigate proteins that contain reactive cysteines. Dysregulation of these cysteine-mediated protein activities is known to play a role in cancer progression and the onset of aging and age-related diseases.    

“Our approach is unique in that we combine the tools of chemistry and mass spectrometry to interrogate and modulate cysteine-mediated protein activities within complex biological systems. We build small molecules that react with cysteines and then use mass spectrometry to fish out and identify the protein targets of these small molecules.”

With the financial support of the Smith Family and Damon Runyon awards, Weerapana and her colleagues hope to achieve new insights into the molecular basis of cancer and aging and define protein targets that may one day aid drug development efforts to combat cancer and delay the onset of aging and age-related diseases.