Research Report: Salk scientist honored for pioneering work

Salk Institute professor Inder M. Verma, Ph.D., has been named the 2009 recipient of the American Society of Gene Therapy’s Outstanding Achievement Award.

The award recognizes groundbreaking research or a lifetime of significant scientific contributions to the field of gene therapy. Verma, one of the world’s leading authorities on the development and use of engineered viruses for gene therapy, is only the second scientist honored with the society’s Outstanding Achievement Award.

Verma pioneered the use of stripped-down versions of viruses, in particular HIV, to transport intact versions of genes that are defective or missing to cells throughout the body. His innovations revolutionized gene therapy, stem cell and cancer research, and other areas of molecular biology.

Cancer modeling

In studying the preventive effects of vitamin D, researchers at the Moores Cancer Center at UCSD, have proposed a new model of cancer development that points to loss of communication among cells--due to, among other things, low vitamin D and calcium levels--as responsible for the earliest stages of many cancers. This differs markedly from the current understanding of cancer development based on genetic mutations. The findings are reported online in the Annals of Epidemiology.

Studies about the potential preventive effects of vitamin D have been ongoing for decades. Last year, the same UCSD team showed an association between deficiency in sunlight exposure, low vitamin D, and breast cancer. In previous work, they showed associations between increased levels of vitamin D3 (markers of vitamin D) and a lower risk for breast, colon, ovarian, and kidney cancers.

Whale sounds give clues to mammal’s features

An audio and videotape recording of a sperm whale stealing a fisherman’s catch has provided scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD with a first-ever opportunity to compare the mammal’s clicking sounds to physical features of the animal’s head, including its size and internal organ structure.

Sperm whales typically dive to pitch-black water depths of 984 to 6,500 feet to catch prey, making it impossible to capture such activity on video. But in recent years, in Alaska, some sperm whales have developed the ability to steal black cod off “longlines,” deep-sea fishing gear used at 328 feet where videotaping is possible using ambient light.

Until the recording was made, scientists had not been able to get a direct comparison of the size of the animal and its foraging sounds. The study provides a glimpse into a possible new approach for investigating the biology behind marine mammal sounds and perhaps more accurately count their populations. The finding is published in the May issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.