Pew award creates buzz for Amdam
For some, it may be hard to imagine that the bees buzzing between strands of orange flowers of the desert mallow could potentially usher in a medical breakthrough.
However, in the right hands, the insects best known for their banded coloration, social life and skills with pollination could someday be the key to advancements in biomedical neuroscience of aging – if Gro Amdam has her way, with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Amdam, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences who heads social insect studies in laboratories at ASU and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences’ Department of Animal and Aquacultural Sciences, is one of 20 researchers chosen this year to enter the trusts’ exclusive rolls as a Pew Scholar in the biomedical sciences.
About 150 eligible colleges across the nation were invited to submit a candidate for the award this year. It was the first year that ASU was invited to participate, and Amdam was the sole candidate put forward by ASU President Michael Crow.
“The focus of this award – biomedical sciences – is an evolving area of emphasis for ASU,” Crow says. “The fact that the award is going to a researcher using the honeybee as a biomedical model exemplifies the spirit of ASU unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries.”
Robert Page, founding director of ASU’s School of Life Sciences and Amdam’s oft-time collaborator in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says he never had any doubt that the Pew Trusts would select Amdam. He adds that the award has special significance on several fronts.
“This the first year that ASU was invited to nominate, so it marks our initiation as an institution into this select ‘club,’ ” Page says. “The fact that our faculty member was chosen also shows that ASU belongs in the club. Then, when you consider that this award is in the area of biomedical science and will support research using honeybees, … it shows just how much the world of biology is changing and that comparative biology will be central even to the biomedical sciences.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts comprises seven separate trusts established between 1948 and 1979 by the heirs of Joseph N. Pew, founder of the Sun Oil Co., and is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life. It partners with a diverse range of donors, public and private organizations and concerned citizens who share its commitment to fact-based solutions and goal-driven investments to improve society.
“The Pew Scholars are among America’s finest biomedical research entrepreneurs,” says Rebecca Rimel, president and chief executive office of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “They seek out and mine unexpected leads in a quest for knowledge that may one day lead to new medical treatments and save lives.”
As a Pew Scholar, Amdam will receive a $240,000 award over four years to help support her research.
Among past Pew Scholars are Nobel Prize winners, such as Craig Mello from the University of Massachusetts, who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Stanford’s Andrew Fire for their development of the RNA interference (RNAi) technique. Amdam’s research will make use of RNAi to study genes implicated in plasticity of honeybee neuronal aging.
“In the scholarly system of Norway, where I come from, such recognitions are very rare, nearly unheard of,” Amdam says. “This is a great honor for me.”
She also notes: “The award gives me a unique opportunity to take my research at ASU into the field of neuroscience, and neurogerontology in particular.”
According to Amdam, her Pew project will join two lines of study that have never been coupled: the emerging field of honeybee comparative neurogerontology – in which Amdam has published the first work on plasticity of neuronal oxidative damage – and honeybee behavioral physiology, where cumulative data show that age-related cell damage can be reversed. Amdam has written or co-written publications in Nature, Public Library of Science Biology, Advances in Cancer Research, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Experimental Gerontology and Behavioral Brain Research in the past year, laying the foundation for this work. Her group has documented that social reversal, which triggers old bees (that usually forage outside of the hive) to revert to tasks normally performed by younger bees (that nurse larvae within the hive), is associated with reversal of several physiological markers of senescence. Her findings, and supporting findings from other groups, Amdam says, indicate that “behavioral reversal triggers a systemic response, one which translates into a unique cascade of cell repair in bees.”
Preliminary data collected in her laboratory suggest that this cascade can include the central nervous system.
“If social reversal causes arrest or partial clearance of neuronal oxidative damage, my project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts will establish the first model for neuronal oxidative remission,” Amdam says.
Oxidative brain damage is a fundamental pathology in normal human aging and in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and development of novel treatments has high priority in biomedical research, Amdam says. Although she describes this line of discovery as risky, she adds: “Its prospective contribution is of considerable relevance for human health.”
Perhaps four years from now, with some work by Amdam, we will find that the mythic “Fountain of Youth” will turn out to be a hive.