Skip to main content

Biochemist Adam Hughes Named 2015 Searle Scholar for Research into Age-related Disease

(SALT LAKE CITY)—As America turns grayer in the coming years, age-related diseases will become more common and costly—and University of Utah assistant professor of biochemistry Adam Hughes, Ph.D., wants to understand at the most basic level why millions of older people will suffer those ailments.

In recognition of his research, and as a major vote of confidence in the potential of his work, the Searle Scholars Program has just named Hughes a 2015 Searle Scholar, one of only 15 researchers chosen for the award nationwide. The honor means he will receive $100,000 annually for the next three years to aid his research into how changes in basic cell biology processes underlie the development of age-related illnesses.

"Each of these bold and talented young scientists has opened up novel approaches to answer fundamental questions in biology and the biomedical sciences," said Doug Fambrough, Ph.D., scientific director of the Searle Scholars Program. "In addition, they have all thought deeply about how their work might address major human burdens such as cancer, autoimmunity, and autism. We are delighted to be able to give an early boost to their careers."

The funds that support the awards come from trusts established under the wills of John G. and Frances C. Searle. John G. Searle was president of G.D. Searle & Co., of Skokie, Ill., a research-based pharmaceutical company. The Searles expressed the wish that some of the proceeds of their estates be used to support innovative, high-risk high-reward research in medicine, chemistry, and the biological sciences. Established in 1980, the Searle Scholars Program supports promising researchers in the earliest stages of their careers and has given more than $115 million to 542 scholars at institutions nationwide. To apply for the award, researchers must work at one of the 153 institutions invited to participate in the program.

Hughes has made significant discoveries at every stage of his research career, according to Wes Sundquist, Ph.D., co-chair of the University's Department of Biochemistry. As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Hughes discovered a new mechanism by which cells sense environmental oxygen levels. While serving his postdoctoral fellowship at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center he discovered a pathway that regulates aging through communication between mitochondria, specialized subunits in cells (called organelles) that generate energy, and lysosomes, organelles that degrade proteins and store nutrients.

"Adam is an absolutely first-rate scientist who was heavily recruited by a number of outstanding universities, including MIT and Duke," said Sundquist and Chris Hill, Ph.D, co-chairs of the U of U biochemistry department. "He brings great energy and insight to our department, and further strengthens our institutional initiative in diabetes and metabolism. We are delighted his talents and potential have been honored with this prestigious Searle Scholar Award."

At the University, Hughes continues his research on mitochondria and lysosomes and how the failure to maintain integrity of those organelles contributes to aging and age-related diseases. He hopes that investigating these pathways, and others he has discovered, will provide fundamental insights into how organelles communicate within cells and ultimately open new avenues for treating age-associated diseases arising from changes in organelles.

"It is truly an honor to have been named a Searle Scholar, and I am grateful for the generosity of Searle Scholars Program in providing support for the careers of young scientists," Hughes says. "The funds provided by the Searle foundation will enable us to pursue bold new avenues of research in aging and organelle biology that would not have been possible otherwise."