Ankur Jain, a biologist and academician at MIT, is among 22 researchers to have been named as Packard Fellows, a prestigious fellowship under which the early-career scientists get USD 875,000 to pursue their research work for the next five years. Jain, who is a Whitehead Institute Biomedical Research member and assistant professor of biology at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was named a Packard Fellow by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for his investigations on how RNA (Ribonucleic acid) aggregation contributes to neurological diseases. “I am very grateful for the Packard Foundation’s support of our continued investigations of how RNA aggregation contributes to disease,” Jain was quoted as saying by MIT news.
Jain received his bachelor degree in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur in 2007, and earned a doctorate in Biophysics and Computational Biology at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 2013. He conducted his postdoctoral research in the lab of Ronald Vale at the University of California, San Francisco.
Jain has discovered that certain RNAs can form aggregates, clumping together into membrane-less gels. This process, known as phase separation, has been widely studied in proteins, but not in RNA. He has found that RNA gels occur in, and could contribute to, a set of neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Huntington’s disease. These conditions, known as repeat expansion diseases, are marked by abnormal repetition of short sequences of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA (Deoxyribo nucleic Acid) and RNA. The RNAs containing these sequences are more likely to clump together.
The fellowship will enable Jain to advance his research program around this phenomenon. “Although it is well-appreciated that RNA can form aggregates in test tubes, the biological implications of this process are not yet known,” he explains. “The award will allow us to examine how RNA aggregates affect cell function and ultimately contribute to neurological disease,” he said.
Each year, the foundation invites 50 university presidents to nominate two early-career professors each from their institutions.
From those 100 nominees, an advisory panel of distinguished scientists and engineers select the fellows, who receive individual grants of USD 875,000 over five years. The 2019 class comprises 22 fellows.
“We are extraordinarily pleased that Ankur has received such clear and substantive affirmation of his pioneering research on the role that RNAs play in devastating neurological diseases,” said Whitehead Institute Director David C Page. “This exciting work is at the forefront of soft-matter physics and cell biology, and could well open new chapters in RNA regulation specifically and in cell biology more broadly,” he said.