These Philly Prize winners tackle problems from inside the brain to outer space
Nancy Bonini studies Parkinson’s disease and other brain diseases by examining the genes of a laboratory animal smaller than the head of a pin: the fruit fly.
Gary Beauchamp has made fundamental discoveries about the human sense of taste and smell, showing how we can wean off excess salt, and perhaps in an upcoming study, from sugar.
Barry Arkles has used chemistry to improve products as diverse as soft contact lenses and tiles that protect the space shuttle.
The three Philadelphia-area researchers were honored Thursday with the John Scott Awards, awards given annually by the city’s group of Citizen Trusts to recognize achievement in science.
First awarded in 1822, the prize was given by Scott, a chemist and pharmacist from Scotland, in honor of Benjamin Franklin. 17 Nobel Prize recipients have also won, including K. Barry Sharpless, who won his first Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001, the same year he was awarded the Scott Prize, followed by a second this year.
Bonini, professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania; Beauchamp, President Emeritus of the Monell Chemical Senses Center; and Arkles, co-founder of a string of tech startups, each received a medal and $10,000 at a ceremony at the American Philosophical Association.
The awards are presented by the Board of City Trusts, a group that manages dozens of charities of which the City of Philadelphia is one of its trustees. Winners are chosen based on the recommendations of a panel of scholars, which includes representatives from Penn, Temple and Drexel universities.
Here’s how this year’s winners made their mark.
Decades ago, Beauchamp demonstrated that people who were restricted to a low-salt diet could reduce their innate craving for salty foods. The research paved the way for government and political groups to recommend reducing salt consumption.
Now, in collaboration with the USDA, he’s setting his sights on sugar.
The plan is to feed the volunteers a low-sugar diet for more than three months, and measure whether that reduces their natural sweet tooth. Their results will be compared with those of two other groups: one on a normal diet, and the other in which sugar is replaced with artificial sweeteners.
If the low-sugar diet is effective, it may be beneficial for efforts to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes. But preliminary evidence suggests that suppressing sugar cravings may be more difficult than suppressing cravings for salty foods, said Beauchamp, who was Director of Monel from 1990 to 2014.
“We were built to love sweet things,” he said.
During more than five decades at Monel, Beauchamp tackled what he described as an “eclectic” array of other projects. Among them: a study of how body odors can be useful in early diagnosis of disease, and how a compound in virgin olive oil acts as an anti-inflammatory agent.
When Bonini came to Pennsylvania in 1994, fruit flies had long been a staple in biology research, as insects are easy to breed and, despite their small size, share a great degree of genetic kinship with humans. But Bonini was among the first to use flies to treat diseases of the human brain, using genetic engineering to cause similar symptoms in insects.
Her focus is on neurodegenerative diseases — those characterized by the abnormal buildup of proteins, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Among her first successes, working with colleagues at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, created flies with one such disease that impairs muscle control, called myeloid ataxia type III. down the progression of the disease.
Building on this research, Bonini and her colleagues identified a drug that protects flies from Parkinson’s disease by intensifying the stress response in their brains.
This drug is unlikely to be practical for humans, as it would be difficult to provide it in sufficient quantities. She said the research shows how this same genetic pathway is likely to be closely related to the human version of the disease. Other drugs may help in humans if directed toward the same goal.
“The fly is a powerful addition to our collective scientific toolkit, to learn about and provide the basis for treatment approaches,” she said.
Ph.D. was trained at Temple. A biochemist, Arkles built a career of chemical compounds containing silicon, the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.
She began a summer job in the late 1960s at an engineering plastics company, where he helped develop materials for use in Kodak slide projectors and Polaroid cameras.
He went on to found three research companies, and in one case developed silicone-based compounds that are now widely used in soft contact lenses, allowing more oxygen to flow into the cornea.
Arcles later worked with NASA after the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which lost some of its surface tiles due to moisture absorption.
Again, his answer was silicone, due to its water-resistant properties. Arkles developed a silicone-based coating that not only protected the tiles from moisture on later shuttle missions, but also helped the tiles withstand heat back into Earth’s atmosphere.
Arkles was elected in 2021 to the National Academy of Engineering, and now he’s applying silicon chemistry to human disease.
At Cater Inc. Headquartered in Doylestown, it explores the use of silicon-based molecules to treat diseases called ductopathy, including certain types of irregular heart rhythms. These states are so named because they involve a deficiency in the channels through which chemical ions move across cell membranes.
He said, “This is a rather long shot, but at this point in my career, I think I might have a slightly different way of looking at it.”
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