Weill Cornell Scientist Wins Prestigious Rita Allen Foundation Award to Unlock Secrets of Cell Death and Inflammation

New Paper in <em>Nature</em> Reveals Structure of "TRAF6 Signaling" and How Its Inhibition May Be Used to Treat Degenerative Bone Diseases

Aug 1, 2002


Dr. Hao Wu, a noted structural biologist and Associate Professor of Biochemistry at Weill Medical College and Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University, has added a Rita Allen Foundation Award to her honors. Dr. Wu, who was named one of 20 Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences two years ago, will now also receive a Rita Allen Foundation Award of $50,000 a year for the next three years. The prestigious award, which is given to only four outstanding young scientists each year, will help support her research in "apoptotic and inflammatory signaling," or the mechanisms by which cells die or become inflamed.

In one of the ongoing publications of her research, Dr. Wu and several colleagues report in the current issue of Nature their findings on the TRAF6 signaling protein. "TRAF6" stands for TNF (tumor necrosis factor) receptor-associated factor 6. The authors—who studied the signaling of TRAF6 through genetic, biochemical, and crystallographic methods—describe what they call "the universal structural mechanism for TRAF6 to participate in adaptive immunity, innate immunity, and bone homeostasis." According to Dr. Wu, the study shows that inhibition of TRAF6 signaling may be used to treat osteolytic diseases—that is, degenerative bone diseases.

Dr. Wu's special field of research is the TNF receptor super-family. (Receptors are the proteins on a cell's surface by which it responds to the world.) This family of receptors is important in the genesis of many diseases, she says. For example, "Receptors in the TNF receptor super-family are highly involved in the pathogenesis of multiple sclerosis by potentiating inflammatory responses through TRAF2 and TRAF6."

Another newly described member of the TNF receptor super-family, called RANK, is crucial for bone metabolism and is involved in the excessive pain associated with bone metastasis in cancer patients, Dr. Wu says. The Nature paper describes, among other things, the interactions of TRAF6 and RANK. In her proposal for the Rita Allen Foundation Award, Dr. Wu said that "the inhibition of RANK activity represents a novel pathway for the alleviation of pain in terminal cancer patients, who often have bone metastasis."

Dr. Wu says, "The goal of the Rita Allen Foundation lies in the treatment of diseases such as cancer, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis, and in the provision of euphorics and analgesics for the terminally ill. Our research has direct and strong implications to these clinical conditions, and we are committed to making our contribution to these clinical problems from a unique structural perspective."

Dr. Wu came to America from China in 1988 and received her Ph.D. in structural biology from Purdue University in 1992. While at Purdue, she had a Howard Hughes pre-doctoral fellowship. She then worked at Columbia University, where she had an Aaron Diamond postdoctoral fellowship. She has been at Weill Cornell Medical College since 1997.