Mikhail Shapiro Named HHMI Investigator

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Congratulations to Dr. Mikhail Shapiro on being named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator this year!

Mikhail Shapiro

October 1, 2021

Mikhail Shapiro, professor of chemical engineering, has been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator. He is one of 33 scientists named as investigators this year by HHMI, a nonprofit medical research organization founded by the late billionaire, engineer, pilot, and movie producer Howard Hughes. Shapiro is joining approximately 250 other scientists who have been named as investigators to date.

According to a release issued by HHMI, the investigators were chosen "because they're thoughtful, rigorous scientists who have the potential to make transformative discoveries over time."

"We encourage Investigators to follow new directions, learn new methods, and think in new ways," said David Clapham, HHMI's vice president and chief scientific officer, in a prepared statement. "This could lead to scientific breakthroughs that benefit humanity."

Shapiro was chosen for his work using sound waves to image and control the behavior of cells within living tissues. Shapiro's research has taken a well-established imaging method and reimagined it. The work makes use of so-called reporter genes—specialized sections of DNA inserted into the genome of a cell as a marker. Historically these genes have encoded fluorescent proteins that cause a cell the glow under certain conditions. The problem, however, is that the glow of those fluorescent proteins cannot be seen if their host cells are located deep inside living tissue. Shapiro's novel solution: acoustic reporter genes. Instead of making a cell glow, these genes cause it to give off an acoustic signature when struck by ultrasound waves.

Ultrasound has already been used for imaging the anatomy of large structures like organs or a developing fetus, but Shapiro's work has now given scientists the ability to image single cells or follow the activity of proteins with sound. In addition, Shapiro's lab has developed complementary technologies that allow focused ultrasound to serve as a remote control, instructing cells to carry out programmed functions at specific locations.

"Some of the scientists I admire most, both at Caltech and at other institutions, are HHMI investigators. To join this illustrious group is an enormous honor," Shapiro says.

HHMI investigators will receive around $9 million in funding for their research over a seven-year term, with this year's cohort representing a $300 million investment by HHMI into research.

Other HHMI investigators from Caltech are:

  • David Anderson, the Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology, Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience Leadership Chair, and director of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience
  • Michael Elowitz, professor of biology and bioengineering
  • Elliot Meyerowitz, the George W. Beadle Professor of Biology
  • Doug Rees, the Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson Professor of Chemistry

For more information on the HHMI Investigator program, visit https://www.hhmi.org/programs/biomedical-research/investigator-program.

Caltech article originally written by Emily Velasco.