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Dr. Harmit Malik receives Vilcek Prize for creative promise in biomedical science

'Evolutionary biologist' studies the co-evolution of humans and diseases

SEATTLE — March 4, 2010 — Harmit Singh Malik, Ph.D., an evolutionary biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has received the 2010 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science. He received the honor, which carries a $25,000 cash prize, for his research on the co-evolution of humans and diseases.

The annual Vilcek Foundation awards celebrate "immigrant achievement in biomedical science and arts." Malik was among four awardees this year. Others include chef Varin Keokitvon of Seattle's FareStart, biochemist Alexander Varshavsky and culinary innovator José Andrés. Malik and his fellow award recipients will be honored at the Foundation’s fifth annual awards presentation April 7 in New York City.

The Vilcek Prizes epitomize the mission of the Vilcek Foundation, which was formed by Jan and Marica Vilcek to honor the contributions of foreign-born individuals in the United States.

Malik, a native of India, is an associate member of the Hutchinson Center's Basic Sciences Division and an affiliate assistant professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He also is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist.

Malik studies genetic conflict. He sees battles raging within a cell’s nucleus as genes jockey for evolutionary dominance. These clashes can have a long-term impact on organisms, as they sometimes alter the function of essential genes. Malik uses biochemistry and genomics to study the causes and consequences of these genetic conflicts in yeast, fruit flies and other model organisms. His work has offered novel explanations in two disciplines: host-pathogen interactions and the evolution of structural DNA elements (centromeres) that are critical for proper cell division.

Recently, Malik and colleagues have turned their attention to the phenomenon of "viral mimicry," in which viral proteins can resemble host proteins to hijack important cellular functions. His lab showed that host proteins can evolve to defeat viral mimicry, providing yet another nuance to a never-ending "arms race" between hosts and viruses.

His lab also has shown that centromeres and the proteins that bind them evolve unusually rapidly in animal genomes. His lab hypothesized and is testing the model that such a genetic conflict may recurrently drive the onset of reproductive barriers between recently diverged species.

Malik received his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. He completed his doctoral work in molecular evolutionary biology at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., where, under the mentorship of Tom Eickbush, Ph.D., he first became intrigued by the study of genetic conflict. Malik joined the Hutchinson Center faculty in 2003. He is a frequent speaker in local Seattle forums on the merits of combining evolutionary approaches for the study and treatment of medically important diseases.

Note for media only: Click here to download a high-resolution photo of Dr. Malik

MEDIA CONTACT:
Kristen Woodward
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
(206) 667-5095
kwoodwar@fhcrc.org

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