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Theme and variations: U-M scientist named Pew Scholar for work on genetic variety between our cells

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A young University of Michigan scientist who seeks to understand the basis of human disease by combining DNA analysis and sophisticated computer-based techniques has won a prestigious national award that will accelerate his team’s work.

Jeffrey Kidd, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the U-M Medical School, has been named one of only 22 Pew Scholars in the United States for 2013. It’s an honor given by The Pew Charitable Trusts to some of the most promising early-career biomedical scientists. He is the 18th Pew Scholar on the U-M faculty and will receive a four-year, $240,000 unrestricted research grant.

Kidd – who holds faculty positions in both the Department of Human Genetics and the Department of Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics -- straddles the worlds of DNA research and bioinformatics, a field that develops techniques to analyze and glean new knowledge from large amounts of biomedical data.

He and his team will use the Pew funding to develop a new approach that measures the DNA differences that exist within each individual human.

“We often focus on genetic differences between individuals, or across populations and species. But each of our own cells has its own genome, and that genome differs slightly from cell to cell,” he explains. “We hope with this new technology we can investigate how those differences occur, and what their importance is for various diseases.” He notes that these differences are most well-known in cancer, but that they are important to other diseases as well.

Kidd’s team, which includes laboratory and bioinformatics researchers, will apply the Pew funding to deploy a new technique that combines methods for finding variations among cells’ genomes and analyzing how often these differences occur. Over time, they hope to apply the technique to studying the origin of different diseases, and potentially developing new diagnostic or treatment options.  

“We are delighted to have been able to recruit Jeff to Michigan,” says Sally Camper, Ph.D., chair of human genetics. “He is an excellent communicator with unique expertise, and he has already developed collaborations with faculty members in several different units. His insight and ideas have stimulated new areas of investigation for many of us. He is a visionary thinker.”

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The Pew Scholar program is highly competitive, including an internal nomination process within U-M that selects the university’s nominee or nominees for each year, and competition among nominees from dozens of universities. Of the 134 nominees from across the country this year, 22 were chosen as Pew Scholars.

“The Pew Scholars program gives innovative scientists both the freedom to take calculated risks and the resources to pursue the most promising, but untried, avenues for scientific breakthroughs,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and CEO of Pew. “Pew funding provides an ‘insurance policy,’ allowing our scientists to be adventurous with their research. Though their scientific fields are diverse, their commitment is uniform: harnessing scientific discovery to improve human health.”

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