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The First Winners of the LEA

The First Winners of the LEA  content piece image
The LEA awardees, Dr Oliver Schmidt, Professor Anne-Claude Gavin and Professor Sarah Keller (left to right).
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The Lipidomics Excellence Award (LEA) was founded to strengthen life sciences through lipidomics. After reviewing the many high-quality submitted projects, the LEA jury announce the three awardees. 

The origins of the LEA

The LEA was created in response to the urgent need for better accessibility to lipidomics analysis. The creators of the LEA – LIPID MAPS, SwissLipids and Lipotype GmbH – believe that the lipidomics community should not be limited to those who are actively researching lipidomics. They want to encourage researchers to incorporate lipidomic analysis in to their work with the hope that this fosters creative power in life sciences research and allows for general progress across disciplines. 

The LEA promotes, supports and strengthens researchers who are eager to contribute to the progress of life sciences through lipidomics with generous research prizes.

The winner of the first prize receives a trophy, 50,000 EUR worth of analysis services and a speaking slot to present their results at the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) workshop “Lipid function in health and disease” as well as coverage of the logistical costs to participate in the workshop. The second prize winner is awarded a lipidomics analysis worth 10,000 EUR, and the third prize winner is acknowledged by a 1,500 EUR analysis package (all lipidomics analysis packages are provided by Lipotype GmbH.)

To select the awardees, a panel of internationally renowned members of academia, each of them recognized as leading experts in their respective fields, was gathered. Over the course of April, the independent LEA jury composed of Britta BrüggerPietro De Camilli, Ari Helenius and Kai Simons discussed vividly all applications. After weeks of deliberation, they decided on the following three scientists and their research projects.

A cartography of lipid highways

An emerging player in lipid metabolism and its associated disorders is a group of disease-linked proteins known as lipid-transfer proteins. At least 131 lipid-transfer proteins have been found in humans. Some of them orchestrate the transfer of lipids between membranes, thereby spatially organizing lipids and connecting lipid metabolic pathways.

Anne-Claude Gavin, who just recently was appointed Louis-Jeantet Professor at the University of Geneva, has been awarded with the first prize for her lipid-transfer research proposal to develop the first molecular cartography of these lipid “highways”. She expects “the project will help to answer fundamental and medically relevant questions and complete the current metabolic maps with critical players that have never been systematically studied.” The detailed insights into metabolic signaling and pathways, as well as lipid-transfer protein mediated lipid movement, will be integrated into a molecular model to describe cell-specific cancer-associated alterations.

“Winning the first prize of the LEA is perfect timing, as my group just moved to the University of Geneva where we start new research activities,” Gavin answered upon receiving the note from the LEA jury. 

About the waste bucket system for lipid proteins

To adjust to their ever-changing environment, cells continuously synthesize and degrade proteins. Oliver Schmidt, Assistant Professor at the Biocenter of the Medical University of Innsbruck, together with his colleagues recently identified a third and new membrane protein degradation pathway in cells, the endosome and golgi-associated degradation (EGAD) pathway. Surprisingly, proteins which are degraded via the EGAD pathway are rich in proteins orchestrating the lipid metabolism. As such, the EGAD pathway is not only involved in protein homeostasis but lipid homeostasis too.

Schmidt won the second LEA prize to focus on further investigation and characterization of the influence of the EGAD pathway on lipid metabolism. To him, the lipidomics data obtained through the LEA research prize will present “a real step forward for the quite novel research field on EGAD, which is currently taking a strong lipidomics direction.”

The findings of this investigation may in future hold the potential to new therapeutic approaches in lipid metabolism associated diseases like diabetes or asthma and might eventually become textbook knowledge.

Unraveling the mysteries of the cell membrane

"Scientific progress relies on the development of new tools,” says Sarah L. Keller, Professor of Chemistry at University of Washington - Seattle, who has been awarded with the third LEA prize for her proposed cell membrane research project in yeast, an important model organism.

When yeast cells switch their stage of growth from proliferation to maintenance, large lipid domains appear in the membrane of their vacuoles, organelles inside the yeast. This change has been linked to the cellular TOR signaling pathway.
This pathway is of high importance in humans. For example, the TOR signaling pathway is targeted by rapamycin, a remarkable drug that is applied to inhibit the proliferation of tumor cells and prevent organ rejection in kidney transplant patients.

“Advances in lipidomics over the past 20 years have been stunning; they allow my lab to ask quantitative questions that we could not have considered when I first entered the field.” adds Keller. She will use her LEA research prize to answer questions about what molecular changes in vacuole membranes drive the formation of the lipid domains. Her results will facilitate our understanding of the cell membrane and will serve as a springboard for future investigations.

Taking the awardees to the bench

The three awardees of the LEA have been invited to request their research support from the R&D unit of Lipotype GmbH. Together, they will elaborate their experimental setups and start preparing their sample sets. The analysis of the samples will be run over the course of the summer and autumn in accordance with the awardees research schedules.

The first results of the LEA funded research will be made public at the official LEA press conference on September 26th. The panel discussion with world-leading lipid experts and the winner of the first prize of the LEA, Gavin, will be broadcasted internationally. A day later, Gavin will present her findings to the audience of the EMBO workshop “Lipid functions in health and disease” which takes place in Dresden, Germany from 27th to 30th September.