Einstein Researcher Receives 2009 Beckman Foundation Young Investigator Award

May 13 2009 — (BRONX, NY) — Jonathan R. Lai, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, has been awarded the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation's 2009 Young Investigator Award. The $300,000 award will allow Dr. Lai to continue his innovative research on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and antibody-mediated immunity over a three-year period.

Jonathan Lai, Ph.D.
Jonathan Lai, Ph.D.
The Beckman Young Investigators Award supports the work of the nation's most promising young researchers in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences. Dr. Lai was one of eleven awardees selected this year.

The 31-year-old Dr. Lai studies the proteins that coat the surface of the HIV virus. These proteins help HIV infect the cells of the body. Immunity to viral infections involves antibodies that bind to such proteins and prevent the virus from entering human cells. Vaccines work by prompting the body to make antibodies using proteins that mimic the viruses' coat. In HIV, these antibodies rarely arise from natural infection, making it difficult for HIV vaccine researchers to know how to mimic the viruses' coat.

But Dr. Lai's lab is using new technology in which large 'libraries' of antibodies can be produced from synthetic DNA. Therefore, the antibodies that Dr. Lai's lab can obtain are not limited to human or animal sources. He hopes that this approach will lead to new antibodies that prevent HIV infection, in turn providing more information about how to design a vaccine that mimics the viruses' coat.

Dr. Lai is new to HIV and AIDS research, entering the field in 2007. After authoring or co-authoring 16 papers on peptide chemistry and natural products research, Dr. Lai shifted his focus, believing HIV/AIDS research would benefit from innovative technologies and fresh ideas. While it was challenging to start a new lab in a new field at a new institution, Dr. Lai credits Einstein with easing the transition.

"Einstein is extremely open and collaborative, which is one of the reasons I wanted to join the faculty," says Dr. Lai. "Coming from a chemistry background, it was easy to get up to speed on the biological aspects of HIV because of the support of the faculty and the chair of the department, Dr. Vern Schramm."

Vern Schramm, Ph.D., the Ruth Merns Professor and Chair of Einstein's Department of Biochemistry, is pleased that Dr. Lai has joined his department. "Dr. Lai's inventive approach to the long-standing challenge of developing an effective AIDS vaccine will contribute enormously to the advancement of HIV and AIDS research," says Dr. Schramm. "The energy and enthusiasm of the students in his lab is palpable and attests to the originality of his work."

Dr. Lai also recognizes the important role that Einstein's Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) has made in advancing his work. CFAR coordinates the research activities at Einstein and Montefiore Medical Center, The University Hospital and Academic Medical Center for Einstein, in order to rapidly translate the newest research advances into therapies. CFAR's pilot grant, its biweekly seminar series, and the support of CFAR director Harris Goldstein, M.D., and of Vinayaka R. Prasad, Ph.D., have been particularly valuable.

Einstein has been awarded this competitive award before: Dr. Nancy Carrasco, M.D., professor of molecular pharmacology and of biochemistry at Einstein, was selected as a Beckman Young Investigator in 1991, the inaugural year of the award.

Originally from Edmonton, Canada, Dr. Lai received his B.Sc. Honors in biochemistry from Queen's University. He earned his Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and did his post-doctoral work at Harvard Medical School in Boston. From 2004 to 2007, he was a recipient of a Helen Hay Whitney Post-Doctoral Fellowship. Dr. Lai lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.