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Harvard’s Emily Balskus Wins Blavatnik National Award for Young Scientists

 

Emily Balskus, Ph.D., a chemical biologist at Harvard University, was named one of three laureates of the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists, according to a recent announcement.

Balskus won the award for her team’s research discoveries, which represent a significant advance toward the development of new strategies for the prevention and diagnosis of colorectal cancer.

The three winners were selected from a pool of 343 nominees from 169 academic and research centers. According to the Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences, the $250,000 award is the world’s largest unrestricted prize for early-career scientists. The goal of the award is to support the groundbreaking discoveries of young scientists and engineers.

“I hope it will inspire young scientists,” Balskus told MedTech Boston, referencing her victory. “It has inspired me to hopefully continue to strive to be a leader in my field and to be a good role model to the scientific community.”

Balskus received the award “for her transformative work identifying the novel chemistry of the gut microbiome and deciphering its role in human health and disease,” according to the announcement from the Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Over the past decade, more studies have linked components of the microbiome to colorectal cancer. Balskus and her colleagues focus on discovering, understanding and manipulating microbial metabolism.

Balskus said her research has several implications for healthcare. 

Her work has shown that members of the gut microbiome can interact with the host cell, which is directly damaging and not something people have understood.

“This could cause others to look for similar interactions to guide further research for cancer and other diseases,” she said. 

Balskus’s goal is to develop small molecule inhibitors to stop toxin production, which could potentially lead to a therapeutic for cancer prevention.

“It opens up the possibility that the gut microbiome and all of its reservoir of chemistry could be a target for therapeutic development that has been overlooked,” Balskus said. “Patients and clinicians might be curious to know about that.” 

But beyond her research, Balskus pointed out that this is the first time all three recipients of the $250,000 prize are women.

“The acknowledgement further inspired me to want to work to increase the representation of women and underrepresented groups in science,” she said. 

Heather Lynch, Ph.D., associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, and Ana Maria Rey, Ph.D., JILA fellow and professor of physics at University of Colorado Boulder, received honors for life and physical sciences and engineering awards.

“These three women are leading scientists and inventive trailblazers with stellar accomplishments in their respective fields,” said Len Blavatnik, head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation. “Their groundbreaking research leads the way for future discoveries that will improve the world and benefit humankind.”

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