Professor Patricia Clark Awarded NIH Pioneer Award, the First in Indiana

Patricia Clark

In October, Patricia L. Clark, the Rev. John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C., Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, received a prestigious Director’s Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health. She is the first researcher in the state of Indiana to ever win.

"We recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the sequencing of the human genome. Since that time, we have sequenced so much human DNA that we have begun to learn which DNA mutations make us more susceptible to certain diseases.”

The award offers five years of research funding totaling $5 million and is given to exceptionally creative scientists who pitch an innovative idea that addresses a challenge in biomedical, behavioral, or social science research.

Clark’s research will look at silent changes or substitutions in DNA sequences and identify which proteins are susceptible to these changes. These substitutions often result in misfolding of proteins, which leads to diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Clark said, “We recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the sequencing of the human genome. Since that time, we have sequenced so much human DNA that we have begun to learn which DNA mutations make us more susceptible to certain diseases. Surprisingly, some of these mutations are synonymous codon substitutions.

“Understanding how these synonymous substitutions affect protein folding therefore holds the promise of helping us better understand the molecular basis of disease, so we can design more effective interventions.”

Though the applications for this research have the potential to help researchers understand disease, Clark underscored that her lab is looking at the fundamental science behind these issues and will start by using a strain of the bacterium E. coli.

“Professor Clark’s research will lead to entirely new concepts and will use new approaches to understand how molecules inside the cells are synthesized and function,” said Santiago Schnell, the William K. Warren Foundation Dean of the College of Science. “Her findings will propel basic biomedical research, and in the long term will lead to improvements in human health.”

Clark has been at Notre Dame since 2001, where she has been routinely awarded for both her teaching and research. As Notre Dame aspires to become one of the preeminent research institutions in the world, it prizes research like Clark’s that seeks truth and understanding in new and innovative ways.