The LEO Foundation Award 2021 – Region Americas

Grantee: Hunter Shain

Amount: USD 100,000

Grant category: LEO Foundation Awards

Year: 2021

Geography: USA

Hunter Shain is Assistant Professor at the University of California in San Francisco, USA.

He receives the award for his excellent and high-impact research in the field of dermatology and for his outstanding vision for research which outlines clear questions and approaches.

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Regeneration of new fat cells in skin wounds from epigenetically plastic myofibroblasts

Grantee: Maksim Plikus, Professor, University of California – Irvine

Amount: DKK 3,923,850

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2021

Geography: USA

The aim of this project is to study regeneration of new skin, complete with hair follicles, glands and adipose (fat) tissue.

Maksim Plikus will use a mouse model where many new hair follicles and adipocytes (fat cells) are formed from the center of large skin wounds. It is known that at the center of large wounds, there are cells (called myofibroblasts) that are essential for wound healing – and that these cells can ‘re-program’ into fat cells which are essential for scarless wound healing. This capacity to change is lost at the edges of large wounds and in smaller wounds.

The re-programming will be investigated by looking into how the myofibroblasts change during wound healing and identify the source of the fat cell growth factors responsible for the change. The findings will be used to better understand why these changes do not take place at wound edges but start from the wound center.

If successful, the project may pioneer a new research direction on regenerative wound healing and inspire new therapeutic approaches to scarring.

Genetic and Epigenetic Mechanisms of Steroid-Related Skin Inflammation

Grantee: Bryan Sun, Assistant Professor, University of California - San Diego

Amount: DKK 2,995,615

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2020

Geography: USA

Steroids are a powerful class of medications that are widely used to treat inflammatory diseases. In most cases, steroids block an overactive immune response. However, in skin diseases such as rosacea and perioral dermatitis, the chronic use of steroids can lead to worsened inflammation. While these worsened cases are common, it is not understood why steroids worsen disease and make them even more difficult to treat.  

Bryan Sun and his research group recently discovered that an important cytokine which is elevated in rosacea, known as CCL20, is paradoxically activated in the skin by steroids. CCL20 increases inflammation by recruiting lymphocytes and dendritic cells. They found that steroid molecules directly bind and activate the CCL20 gene, overcoming the usual suppressive effects of steroids on inflammation. Based on this finding, they hypothesize that in some skin conditions, steroids directly activate the expression of genes that cause inflammation.  

The goal of this project is to systematically identify genetic and epigenetic steroid targets in skin cells. If successful, the results would allow identification of new therapeutic targets for rosacea and perioral dermatitis, and lead to valuable insight into other steroid-resistant inflammatory diseases.  

Investigation of genetic variation and development of genetically defined cell models for Acne vulgaris therapeutic and cosmetic products evaluation

Grantee: George Church, Professor at Harvard Medical School, Harvard University and MIT, Cambridge, MA

Amount: DKK 3,926,475

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2020

Geography: USA

Summary available soon.

Molecular investigation of CCL5-hi chronic adult rashes (CCARs)

Grantee: Raymond Cho, Associate Professor, Dermatology, School of Medicine, University of California San Francisco, CA

Amount: DKK 3,330,056

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2020

Geography: USA

Summary available soon.

Targeting Aberrant STAT3 Signaling in CTCL

Grantee: Sergei Koralov, Associate Professor, NYU Langone, NY

Amount: DKK 2,676,248

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2020

Geography: USA

Summary available soon.

The LEO Foundation Award 2020 – Region Americas

Grantee: Dr. Ya-Chieh Hsu

Amount: USD 100,000

Grant category: LEO Foundation Awards

Year: 2020

Geography: USA

Ya-Chieh Hsu is the Alvin and Esta Star Associate Professor at the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University, Cambridge, USA.

Ya-Chieh Hsu receives the award in recognition of her research achievements in studying cell-cell interactions and how systemic changes in the body influence these interactions in the skin.

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The LEO Foundation Award 2019 – Region Americas

Grantee: Maksim Plikus

Amount: USD 100,000

Grant category: LEO Foundation Awards

Year: 2019

Geography: USA

Maksim Plikus is Associate Professor at the Department of Developmental and Cell Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of California, Irvine, USA

He receives 100,000 USD for his research in skin stem cells and regeneration.

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Elucidating the origins of melanoma

Grantee: A. Hunter Shain

Amount: DKK 2,500,000

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2019

Geography: USA

The overarching goal of this grant is to better understand the origins of melanomas that appear suddenly, or de novo.

Approximately 70% of melanomas appear in this way, while the remainder grow out of preexisting nevi. Nevi can be monitored and prophylactically removed if they show signs of change, but melanomas that arise de novo are impossible to foresee. It is therefore of utmost importance to understand the origins of melanomas that appear de novo in order to develop biomarkers to predict their emergence.

We previously sequenced melanomas adjacent to nevi, revealing two classes of mutations – initiating mutations (emerging in nevi) and progression mutations (emerging in melanoma). Here, we hypothesize that progression mutations can precede initiating mutations. In this scenario, a melanocyte silently accumulates progression-associated mutations, followed by an initiating mutation so that the ensuing neoplasm ‘skips’ the precursor stages, manifesting directly as a melanoma.

If validated, this hypothesis would explain how de novo melanomas evolve. Here, we will genotype individual melanocytes from healthy human skin to test whether morphologically normal melanocytes can harbour progression mutations. Towards this goal, we have developed innovative solutions to establish high-quality genotyping calls from individual cells. In our preliminary data, we genotyped 17 melanocytes collected from healthy skin, and pathogenic mutations were surprisingly common, supporting our hypothesis. We will extend these studies to fully delineate the spectrum of cancer-associated mutations in melanocytes from healthy skin.

Overall, completion of these studies will reveal the origins of melanomas that do not pass through a precursor stage – a longstanding goal in the skin research community.

A multi-pronged approach to decipher the role of melanosomal transporters in human pigmentation

Grantee: David M Sabatini, Professor of Biology, Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research

Amount: DKK 2,666,588

Grant category: Research grants in open competition

Year: 2019

Geography: USA

Dozens of genes are known to be involved in human pigmentation. Many of these genes encode proteins with well-understood functions, such as in melanocyte development, melanin biosynthesis, and the biogenesis and trafficking of specialized melanin-containing organelles called melanosomes.

Yet, we do not know the molecular function of a class of pigmentation genes encoding putative transport proteins that localize to the melanosome. Identifying their substrates would represent a significant advance in our understanding of how melanin synthesis is regulated and how variants in these genes result in differences in human pigmentation.

Based on a method we developed to rapidly and specifically isolate melanosomes, termed MelanoIP, we can capture melanosomes in minute time-scales such that their labile metabolic contents are preserved for quantitative analysis.

Using this technology, we have performed a comparative study of melanosomal metabolites from cells with several pigment genes disrupted, including the putative melanosomal transporter encoding genes Slc45a2, Oca2, and Mfsd12, which has revealed potential substrates. In this proposal, we will define the substrates of these transporters using MelanoIP, metabolite profiling, and organellar uptake screens.

We will also perform follow-up biochemical analysis of each transporter and its naturally occurring genetic variants. Our unique combination of rigorous approaches will inform our understanding of how melanosomal transporters regulate melanin synthesis, and uncover the molecular basis of how mutations in these melanosomaltransport genes lead to human pigment variation.

Knowledge gained from this study will inform the development of interventions for modulating pigmentation and treating pigmentation pathologies.