White House Awards NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell's Dr. Francis Lee the Highest Honor for Early Career Scientists

Recognizes His Research in Biological Basis of Mental Illness, Particularly Toward Developing Genetic Test to Guide the Treatment of Depression

Jan 9, 2009


Dr. Francis Lee, a psychiatrist and scientist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, has received a commendation by the president of the United States in the form of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for outstanding scientists and engineers in the early part of their independent research careers.

The award represents the second consecutive year a NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell psychiatrist has been so honored: Dr. Bruce McCandliss received a PECASE in 2007.

Dr. Lee was the sole nominee from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and as one of only 12 awardees to represent the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Lee joins a select group of scientists and engineers who were invited to Washington, D.C., for the PECASE awards ceremony and reception at the White House on Dec. 19.

The award recognizes Dr. Lee's research into the molecular and neural mechanisms of depression, anxiety disorder and other mental illnesses. In particular, he identified that a genetic variation, or SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism), in the gene for a growth factor called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) may predict patients' responses to drug treatment. This new approach, known as pharmacogenetics, could lead to diagnostic testing to guide the treatment of depression, replacing the current "trial-and-error" method. Dr. Lee's research with mice suggests that those with the BDNF polymorphism are more prone to anxiety and respond less successfully to a class of common antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which include fluoxetine (Prozac™), citalopram (Celexa™), paroxetine (Paxil™) and sertraline (Zoloft™).

Dr. Lee is applying this research toward treatment of survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attack and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Working in collaboration with his NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell colleague Dr. JoAnn Difede, Dr. Lee screens patients for the BDNF polymorphism. They hypothesize that patients with the polymorphism may not respond as well to SSRIs, but may respond better to novel treatment approaches (that do not rely on BDNF function) such as cognitive enhancers like D-cycloserine (DCS) combined with Dr. Difede's virtual-reality exposure therapy. According to Dr. Lee, approximately 30 percent of patients test positive for the BDNF polymorphism.

Dr. Lee is an associate professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medical College and a practicing psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

His research has been supported by grants from NARSAD (National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression), Burroughs Wellcome Fund, DeWitt Wallace Fund of the New York Community Trust, Sackler Institute, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Dr. Lee received his undergraduate degree with high honors in psychology from Princeton University. He then went on to obtain an M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, followed by psychiatry residency training at what is now known as NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. He obtained further postdoctoral training in molecular neuroscience at the Skirball Institute, New York University, and at the University of California, San Francisco.

The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, established in 1996, honors the most promising researchers in the nation within their fields. Selection for the award is based on innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and community service.

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, located in New York City, is one of the leading academic medical centers in the world, comprising the teaching hospital NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical College, the medical school of Cornell University. NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell provides state-of-the-art inpatient, ambulatory and preventive care in all areas of medicine, and is committed to excellence in patient care, education, research and community service. Weill Cornell physician-scientists have been responsible for many medical advances — from the development of the Pap test for cervical cancer to the synthesis of penicillin, the first successful embryo-biopsy pregnancy and birth in the U.S., the first clinical trial for gene therapy for Parkinson's disease, the first indication of bone marrow's critical role in tumor growth, and, most recently, the world's first successful use of deep brain stimulation to treat a minimally conscious brain-injured patient. NewYork-Presbyterian, which is ranked sixth on the U.S.News & World Report list of top hospitals, also comprises NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Division and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/The Allen Pavilion. Weill Cornell Medical College is the first U.S. medical college to offer a medical degree overseas and maintains a strong global presence in Austria, Brazil, Haiti, Tanzania, Turkey and Qatar. For more information, visit www.med.cornell.edu.

Media Contact:

Lezlie Greenberg 212-821-0560