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September 17, 2015

People of the Times

Public health Dean Donald Burke christens the club rowing team’s newest boat, the Jonas Salk, on Sept. 12. The boat, a heavyweight men’s eight, was named after the polio pioneer who did much of his work at Pitt.  Burke also is the director of the Center for Vaccine Research and associate vice chancellor for global health.

Public health Dean Donald Burke christens the club rowing team’s newest boat, the Jonas Salk, on Sept. 12. The boat, a heavyweight men’s eight, was named after the polio pioneer who did much of his work at Pitt.
Burke also is the director of the Center for Vaccine Research and associate vice chancellor for global health.

Martin Votruba, head of the Slovak studies program in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, has won a Milan Hodza Award of Honor. Two Milan Hodza Awards, named after the last prime minister of Czechoslovakia before Nazi Germany’s influence, are presented annually. The awards recognize the sciences and work that links Slovakia and the rest of the world.
Votruba won the award “for the advancement of knowledge of Slovak history and culture in the Slavic department at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh and for his support to the preservation of Slovak culture in the awareness of Slovak-Americans and public at large,” according to the award citation.

Votruba received a PhDr and PhD from Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, and a diploma in English studies from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

He has written about Slovak filmmaking and linguistic minorities in Slovakia. He delivers talks on Slovak topics locally and has been invited by the U.S. Department of State to give presentations annually for over two decades.


Clearing a blocked passageway between the nucleus and the rest of the cell could present a new opportunity for treating some cases of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, according to a neurobiologist who co-led a study published recently in Nature, and who has joined the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute.

Christopher Donnelly, faculty member in neurobiology at the School of Medicine, will continue research into this pathway and other possible treatment approaches at the Live Like Lou Center for ALS Research, established earlier this year and named for a patient advocacy organization started by Neil and Suzanne Alexander. Neil Alexander died of ALS in March.

In ALS, the motor neurons responsible for movement die, leading to progressive muscle weakness and eventual death due to breathing problems and other complications. According to Donnelly, ALS, like cancer, probably has many different causes, making it difficult to find one-size-fits-all solutions.

“One out of 10 ALS cases is familial and in 40 percent of those we have observed an abnormal repeating gene sequence,” he said of the work he conducted at Johns Hopkins University.

“We wanted to see what proteins that sequence made, so we took skin cells from patients that carried the mutations, converted them into induced pluripotent stem cells and then generated motor neurons for some experiments.”

When proteins are made from DNA blueprints, RNA molecules act as a template. The repeating gene sequence produced RNA that behaved like a sticky spider web and bound other proteins to it, the Hopkins team found. In particular, the sticky RNA clog up what’s known as the nuclear pore complex, a tunnel-like structure that tightly controls the traffic of molecules in and out of the cell’s nucleus.

“One of the hallmarks of ALS is an overabundance of proteins in the cell’s cytoplasm,” Donnelly said. “It’s like a car accident in the tunnel is preventing proteins from making their way through to the other side. Eventually, the damaged cells stop functioning and die.”

Such neurodegeneration was suppressed among Drosophila flies with the gene version of ALS that were given an agent that inhibited the sticky RNA. Another molecule the Hopkins team tested, which acts by altering proteins that control traffic through the nuclear pore complex, also slowed neurodegeneration, the researchers said.

“This pathway could offer us a new way of treating ALS,” Donnelly said. “While there might be different initial triggers of the disease, we suspect many of them might influence the function of this tunnel. We want to further explore this possibility.”

Donnelly received his doctorate from the University of Delaware and did his postdoctoral training at Johns Hopkins.


Darlene Zellers has been appointed as associate vice chancellor for the Office of Academic Career Development (OACD), Health Sciences. Zellers has served as the director of the OACD since 2003, and she assumed the additional role of associate dean for postdoctoral affairs in the School of Medicine in 2009. In 2011, she became the founding director of the OACD Center for Postdoctoral Affairs in the Health Sciences.

Zellers received a BS in individual and family studies from Penn State and an MA in administrative and policy studies and a PhD in higher education administration from Pitt.


UPMC Senior Services hosts an annual event honoring individuals and organizations that advocate for and improve the lives of senior citizens in western Pennsylvania.

Chosen as the 2015 grand champion was Charles F. Reynolds III, UPMC Endowed Professor in Geriatric Psychiatry at the School of Medicine. Reynolds is regarded as an international expert in geriatric psychiatry, with research interests focused on mood, grief and sleep disorders in later life and the promotion of brain health in senior citizens.

Reynolds and the other winners will be honored Oct. 21 at a dinner at the Omni William Penn Hotel.


Timothy Hand, who has been appointed as a faculty member in pediatrics at the School of Medicine, also has been named a scholar within the Richard King Mellon Foundation Institute for Pediatric Research at Children’s Hospital.

Hand is the fourth scientist in the Mellon scholars program, which enables promising researchers in the early stages of their careers to pursue potential breakthrough research projects in biomedicine.

The Mellon scholars are selected on the basis of work that is innovative, delivering new expertise to the biomedical research community; likely to lead to major breakthroughs; and capable of having a long-lasting impact on the practice of medicine.

Hand’s research focuses on the development and regulation of T-cell responses against microbiota and how gastrointestinal infection may unleash the immune response against commensal bacteria and how such responses are controlled to prevent overt pathology.

His research has many applications and may provide insight into a variety of diseases affecting children, including Crohn’s disease, environmental enteropathy and food allergies. His lab will study gastrointestinal immunity to the normal gastrointestinal tract and host-invading pathogens that may disrupt tissue stability.

Previously Hand worked at the Laboratory of Parasitic Disease at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where he had been a post-doctoral fellow since 2009.

Hand earned his bachelor’s degree from Trinity College, University of Toronto, and his doctoral degree from Yale.


The People of the Times column features recent news on faculty and staff, including awards and other honors, accomplishments and administrative appointments.

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