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Neurology professor awarded prestigious NIH MERIT award

Valerie Askanas

In an ideal world, Valerie Askanas would spend all her time researching the causes of muscle disease among older people and none applying for the grant money that funds her work.

Askanas’ vision of utopia snapped a little more into focus last week when the professor of neurology and pathology learned that she will receive a prestigious National Institutes of Health Method to Extend Research in Time Award.

This MERIT award basically doubles the funding period for Askanas’ research to 10 years from five, allowing her to concentrate on her work knowing that long-term funding will be available.

“I was flying – I’m still flying!” said Askanas, who has been with the School of Medicine since 1981 and currently is vice-chair of the Department of Neurology. “To be able to do research for a long time and know that in two or three years you don’t have to write another grant proposal “

By being selected for the MERIT Award, Askanas joins an elite group of researchers. Only 3.3 percent of the 27,637 grant applications made to the NIH in fiscal 1998 were selected for MERIT Awards, said John James, health scientist administrator for NIH.

Only six other USC professors currently have MERIT Awards, according to information compiled by the university’s Office of Contracts and Grants.

MERIT Award recipients typically are experienced researchers whose grant proposals are reviewed and scored by panels of experts and lay people, said Leslie Weiner, chair of the Neurology Department. In addition to having superior grant proposals, recipients also must have demonstrated a long-term commitment to and success in research Weiner said.

“I think [Askanas] is a premier international figure who is gaining a reputation for her pioneering work both on the international stage and nationally,” Weiner said. “Her work is original and it is superb as indicated by the fact that the NIH doesn’t give many MERIT Awards.”

Askanas said her MERIT Award is worth more than $1.5 million over the next five years.

The award will allow Askanas to apply for a three- to five-year funding extension beyond the initial five-year period, rather than having to submit a new funding application. Askanas simply will have to update the NIH on her research through progress reports.

In a letter informing Askanas of her award, Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, praised her “outstanding record of scientific achievements” on NIA research projects.

“The NIA is recognizing your sustained contribution to aging and your leadership and commitment to the field,” Hodes wrote.

Askanas is studying a disease called inclusion body myositis, or IBM, which is the most common muscle disease among people over 55.

The disease weakens muscles so that people have trouble getting up out of chairs, walking and using their fingers. Eventually, they become so disabled that they must use wheelchairs, she said.

Many older people experience muscle weakness, which often is attributed to old age, Askanas said. But many of these people may in fact have IBM, Askanas believes.

“The disease is still being under-diagnosed,” she said. “I think many more people have IBM than are being diagnosed.”

Askanas’ research on IBM could have a profound impact on the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Many abnormalities found in the muscle tissue of people who suffer from IBM strongly resemble abnormalities found in Alzheimer’s patients, Askanas said.

For example, Askanas discovered in the muscle tissue of IBM sufferers a protein called amyloid-ß, which also is found in the brain cells of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Askanas plans to use her MERIT Award to build upon this discovery.

Askanas will explore why amyloid-ß overexposure leads to muscle cell death; the role amyloid-ß plays in inducing oxidative stress, which in turn contributes to the onset of IBM; and whether IBM is caused by genetic factors, environmental influences or a combination of the two.

“My first goal is to find a cure for IBM,” Askanas said. “What we are learning about inclusion body myositis we are very much hopeful can be applied to Alzheimer’s.”

Askanas received previous research grants from the NIH, Muscular Dystrophy Association, Myasthenia Gravis Foundation and the Alzheimer’s Association. She has 324 scientific publications.

Before coming to USC, Askanas was a professor at George Washington University, New York University and Warsaw Medical School in Poland. She earned her M.D. in 1967 from Warsaw Medical School.

Neurology professor awarded prestigious NIH MERIT award

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