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UMass Amherst Chemist Jeanne Hardy Wins Prize for Research

AMHERST — Jeanne Hardy, associate professor of Chemistry, whose research focuses on a key protein linked to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, is being recognized with the inaugural Mahoney Life Sciences Prize at UMass Amherst.

A panel of expert judges from the life-sciences sector observed that the “biomedical implications are significant” and “this could turn out to be one of ‘the’ pivotal studies in the effort to combat Alzheimer’s.” Hardy will receive the prize and present her research with life-sciences experts and UMass officials and scientists at a breakfast ceremony on Tuesday, June 19 at the UMass Club in Boston.

Established by UMass Amherst alumni Richard, Robert, and William Mahoney, the $10,000 prize is intended to recognize scientists from the university’s College of Natural Sciences whose work significantly advances connections between research and industry. The prize will be awarded annually to one faculty member who is the principal author of a peer-reviewed paper about original research. Eligible papers can be on any topic in the life sciences that focuses on new research with translatable applications to industry and society.

“Professor Hardy’s research rose to the top of three highly competitive rounds of review,” said Tricia Serio, dean of the College of Natural Sciences. “Her work exemplifies the outstanding translational research for which our faculty are well known.”

Hardy’s research paper, “Multiple Proteolytic Events in Caspase-6 Self-activation Impacts Conformations of Discrete Structural Regions,” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September 2017.

A crystallographer and protein engineer who has developed tools and techniques for determining the structure and design of proteins, Hardy has for several years intensively investigated a group of ‘molecular scissors’ — so named because they cut up proteins — known as caspases that are active in programmed cell death and inflammation. In particular, one known as caspase-6 is associated with neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases. Recently, Hardy called caspase-6 “an attractive molecular target for treatment of neurodegeneration,” and her lab has been characterizing the structural details of caspase-6 activation and function.

In their most recent research, Hardy used a new approach to reveal “distinct conformational dynamics in critical regions of the caspase-6 structure” that had not been observable by any other techniques. As a result, she said, they offer two important new findings that shed more light on caspase-6’s mechanisms, and the changes they describe “may inspire approaches for manipulating caspase-6 in the context of neurodegeneration.” The new molecular details of caspase-6 dynamics “provide a comprehensive scaffold for strategic design of therapeutic approaches to neurodegenerative disorders.”

The nine other CNS faculty who were named as finalists in the Mahoney Prize competition will also participate in the June 19 event in Boston. They are Min Chen, chemistry; Peter Chien, biochemistry and molecular biology; Lili He, food science; Derek Lovley, microbiology; Leonid Pobezinsky, veterinary and animal sciences; Vincent Rotello, chemistry; S. Thuyumanavan, chemistry; Richard Vachet, chemistry, and Dong Wang, biochemistry and molecular biology.

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