WSU DNA Repair Expert Michael Smerdon Receives Grant Worth up to $3.58 Million From NIH

PULLMAN, Wash.– Washington State University molecular biologist Michael Smerdon has won a 10-year $3.58 million MERIT award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences so that he can continue his research on repairing DNA. Smerdon was the only scientist to receive the award this year and is the 14th recipient since the NIEHS program began in 1966.

For more than 20 years, Smerdon has been doing groundbreaking work on how DNA damage, caused by chemicals and UV light, is repaired. He was among the first investigators to focus on the role that chromatin structure (the way DNA is folded and packaged within each cell) plays in the DNA repair process. He continues to be recognized as a leader in the DNA repair field today.

“DNA damage is detrimental to all living cells and repair of the lesions in human cells is a ‘front-line’ defense against potential mutations and cancer,” said Smerdon, “There are several repair pathways that are crucial to the survival of cells, and results from our laboratory have implications for the broad spectrum of cancer prevention and treatment.”

Every day 10,000 to 20,000 DNA adducts or lesions occur in each of a human’s 10 trillion cells. They are repaired by repair enzymes that travel up and down the double helix strands of DNA until they find a damaged area. Then the enzymes cut out the lesion, and fill the gap with fresh DNA. Each human cell has a strand of DNA that is almost two meters long. It is tightly coiled into bead-like nucleosomes and densely folded in order to fit inside the tiny nucleus of the cell. Repairs are complicated by this compact packaging and Smerdon has showed that repair can’t proceed until the DNA is unfolded. His team works to understand how this packaging and the areas in the DNA where genes are expressed play a role in the repair processes.

“Understanding repair of DNA in specific regions of the packaged structure in the cell nucleus is crucial to understanding why certain DNA lesions are not repaired for long times in human cells,” said Smerdon. “Such ‘long-lived’ lesions can form mutations and ultimately lead to cancer.” His research has shown that repair of certain chromatin areas is absent in people with some of the repair-deficient diseases, like Xeroderma pigmentosum, that are associated with increased cancer frequency. In addition, his work has provided conclusive evidence that formation of a nucleosome dramatically alters repair of DNA lesions. Smerdon also analyzes yeast cells (a simpler model for human cells) to study repair.

Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Awards provide long-term grant support to researchers who demonstrate “superior skill and outstanding productivity during the course of their research careers.” Researchers do not apply for the awards, but are selected by NIEHS. In 1978 Smerdon received a Young Environmental Scientist Award from NIEHS and his research has been supported by the institute since that time. The first five-year period of this grant began this fall. The second five years of support is contingent upon his filing reports of his work after the initial five years. NIEHS is one of the National Institutes of Health.

Smerdon, a professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences, joined the WSU faculty in 1980. He received WSU’s Sahlin Faculty Excellence award for research in 1997 and the College of Sciences Distinguished Faculty Award in 1999. Smerdon presented the WSU Distinguished Faculty Address in 2000. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and chaired the 1995 Gordon Research Conference on DNA Repair. He is also active in developing collaborations between Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, WSU and the Spokane medical community to further common interests in cancer prevention and the problems of environmentally induced cancers.