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Fox Chase Cancer Center's Zaret Receives Prestigious NIH MERIT Award

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected Fox Chase Cancer Center's Kenneth S. Zaret, PhD, a cell and developmental biologist, as a recipient of the prestigious MERIT Award. The award totals more than $5.7 million over 10 years.

MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Awards recognize researchers who demonstrate superior competence and outstanding productivity in research endeavors. The award provides long-term support to researchers with impressive records of scientific achievement in research areas of special importance or promise. Fewer than 5 percent of NIH-funded investigators are selected to receive MERIT Awards.

Zaret, who holds the W.W. Smith Chair in Cancer Research at Fox Chase, heads the Center's scientific program in cell and developmental biology. His research focuses on understanding how genes are activated and how early embryonic cells become specific cell types, such as the liver and pancreas, during the development of mammals.

Zaret's research has yielded findings that provide insight into normal tissue function, tissue regeneration, stem-cell biology, and cell reprogramming during cancer.

"The work we do is fundamental to understanding the genetic control of tissue formation, growth, and regeneration," Zaret said. "Understanding the basis of developing organs in the embryo reveals processes that are repeated in adults, and that can be harnessed to replenish cells in organs that are damaged by disease."

Zaret said many of the changes that occur during the embryonic process mimic changes that occur during the development of cancer.

"Clearly, the NIH believes that understanding fundamental aspects of gene regulation will translate to benefits to human health," said Zaret. "I am extraordinarily grateful for the NIH support, as well as the support of Fox Chase leadership, which also values the impact of basic science on improving cancer treatment."

"This award is especially significant given the very tight budget at the NIH," said Ann Marie Skalka, Ph.D., senior vice president of basic science at Fox Chase.

"It recognizes the importance of Ken's work and the confidence of his peers that he will continue to make major contributions to his field."

Zaret's MERIT Award is based on an NIH investigator-initiated grant that he has held continuously for 20 years. The grant was recently renewed for four more years. Based on Zaret's research progress, the NIH elected to extend the grant from four to 10 years.

Initiated in 1987, the MERIT Award program extends funding to experienced researchers who have superior grants and who have demonstrated a long-term commitment to and success in research. The principal feature of the program is the opportunity for such investigators to gain up to 10 years of grant support. The MERIT Awards are intended to provide such investigators with long-term, stable support to foster their continued creativity and spare them some of the administrative burdens associated with frequent preparation and submission of research grant applications.

MERIT Awards criteria require the researcher 1) to be a leader in the field (for example, paradigm-shifting ideas; continuous record of publications in the highest quality journals; landmark publications, honors and awards received; and excellent productivity;); 2) to be in a field of research that is of high priority and long-term relevance to the mission of the NIH; and 3) to exhibit research productivity and impact at a continuous high level.

Zaret added, "This award allows me the opportunity to stretch our research into new areas that may take years to pay off-hopefully with high benefit."

Zaret joined Fox Chase in 1999 as a senior member of the basic science division. He previously served for 13 years on the faculty of Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, R.I., where he had been a full professor of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry since 1996.

Born in Islip, N.Y., Zaret earned his bachelor's degree in biology and his Ph.D. in biophysics and genetics at the University of Rochester in New York. From 1982 to 1985, he held a Jane Coffin Childs postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California in San Francisco before joining the Brown faculty as an Assistant Professor and Searle Scholar in 1986.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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