Liver and Cardiac Studies Win Malaniak Award

Advanced scientific approaches and innovative thinking to overcome major health challenges were highlighted at the 2020 Bohdan (Danny) Malaniak Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Research at Cedars-Sinai. Lucia Barbier-Torres, PhD, and Adina Hazan, PhD, each won top honors and a $3,000 prize.

Odelia B. Cooper, MD, director of the Clinical and Translational Research Center, (center) is shown with award winners Adina Hazan, PhD, (left) and Lucia Barbier-Torres, PhD.

Odelia B. Cooper, MD, director of the Clinical and Translational Research Center, (center) is shown with award winners Adina Hazan, PhD, (left) and Lucia Barbier-Torres, PhD.

The award, named after a longtime member of Cedars-Sinai's leadership team, the late Danny Malaniak, "aims to foster basic and translational research, enrich knowledge and encourage the development of postdoctoral investigators," said Odelia B. Cooper, MD, director of the Clinical and Translational Research Center at Cedars-Sinai.

Cooper moderated the 13th annual event, at which four finalists made oral presentations Jan. 28 in Harvey Morse Auditorium before a panel of Cedars-Sinai investigators and a packed audience. The panelists then chose the two winners.

"This year we have had many high-quality scientific applicants," Cooper said. "The presentations were judged for excellence in study design, methodology, significance of the findings and innovation."

Barbier-Torres won for her work on alcoholic liver disease. She explained that patients have few treatment options even though the disease is the most common cause of death from liver damage, or cirrhosis, in the U.S.

Her research focused on how alcoholic liver disease damages mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of cells. Barbier-Torres showed that a protein called MATa1, which is involved in activity and regulation of mitochondria, is decreased in alcoholic liver disease. She said that increased interaction of MATa1 with an enzyme called PIN1 could be of significance in the disease. Testing in laboratory mice suggested that blocking PIN1-MATa1 interaction could be a novel strategy for treating alcoholic liver disease.

Barbier-Torres is a postdoctoral scientist in the lab of Shelly Lu, MD, Women's Guild Chair in Gastroenterology, professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Digestive and Liver Diseases.

Hazan presented her work on cardiac conduction system diseases—which cause problems with the pacing of the heartbeat—and the mechanisms behind these problems. She focused on the atrioventricular node, part of the pacemaking system of the heart that usually functions as a "messenger" of signals to the heart muscle. The atrioventricular node also can trigger a backup heartbeat signal if the sinoatrial node, the primary pacemaker, fails.

Hazan set out to show that the same processes that regulate the sinoatrial node, which involve the interaction of calcium and the process of calcium extraction from cells, were also essential for atrioventricular node pacemaking and function. In experiments performed with laboratory mice and in test tube cells and tissues, she confirmed that both elements are essential for spontaneous pacemaker activity in the atrioventricular node.

Further studies that clarify the mechanisms behind heart pacing could hopefully lead to more treatment options for patients, she said. Hazan performed her work in the lab of Joshua Goldhaber, MD, director of Basic Research at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai.

The two other presenting finalists were Russell Rogers, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD, executive director of the Smidt Heart Institute and professor of Medicine, who presented "Immunological Mechanisms of Exosome Mediated Therapeutic Bioactivity in Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy," and Yiwu Yan, PhD, who worked in the lab of Wei Yang, PhD assistant professor of Surgery, to produce her study "RIPK2 Promotes Lethal Prostate Cancer by Stabilizing MYC."

The Malaniak Award event is supported by the Burns and Allen Research Institute and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Cedars-Sinai. Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, director of Cedars-Sinai's Health Service Research and professor of Medicine, is site leader of the clinical institute, and Mariko Ishimori, MD, assistant professor of Medicine, is co-leader.