OHSU Research Honored With NIH Merit Award

07/17/00    Portland, Ore.

Funds to Be Used to Help Locate Faulty Spell-Checker Genes Involved in Cancer.

Oregon Health Sciences University medical geneticist Michael Liskay, Ph.D., in OHSU's School of Medicine, is the recipient of a Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) award grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, an institute of the National Institutes of Health. Since 1986 the NIH has offered MERIT awards to researchers who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity during their previous research endeavors. The award provides long-term stable support for research, freeing investigators from some of the administrative burdens associated with the traditional research grant process. Of the 22,536 research grants that were awarded by the NIH in 1999, only 4 percent were MERIT award grants.

Liskay's $3 million, 10-year grant will be used to further research into genes often referred to as "spell-checker genes," which are involved in the development of hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer or HNPCC. The disease may affect as many as one in every 500 people in the United States.

"The genes work just like the spell-checker function on your computer," said Liskay. "If the spell-checker isn't working, your document will be full of mistakes. Every time you print that document, it's going to generate the same errors. In a cell, the spell-checker gene finds those mistakes and corrects them before they can cause trouble in the form of actual mutations in the genetic blueprint that in turn can lead to cancer."

In 1994 Liskay's team of researchers at OHSU and four other laboratories identified a defect in the spell-checker gene known as MLH1. This defect prevents the gene from performing its job of protecting against genetic mutations that can lead to cancer. So far, three defective spell-checker genes that are responsible for about 70 percent of HNPCC cases have been located. Liskay and his team are now looking for other spell-checker genes, which when defective, would predispose one to cancer.

"Hopefully this research will help us make important strides in the diagnosis and treatment of colorectal cancer," said Liskay. "Once all of the defective genes are tracked down, we also hope to determine which drugs are the most effective against cancers with specific spell-checker defects."

In comparison to traditional NIH grants, which last three to five years, MERIT award grants typically last eight to 10 years. In addition, the renewal process for a MERIT award is less strenuous than the traditional grant process.

"In giving a MERIT award to Dr. Liskay, NIH is recognizing his exceptional achievement and leadership in his field," said Richard Anderson, M.D., a program director at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

"I am very pleased and honored to have received this type of grant award which is part of a huge surge by the NIH to fund basic research, including cancer research," said Liskay.