UMass Amherst Chemist Jeanne Hardy Wins Inaugural Mahoney Life Sciences Prize for High-Impact, Applied Research

Jeanne Hardy
Jeanne Hardy

AMHERST, Mass. – Jeanne Hardy, associate professor of chemistry, whose research focuses on a key protein linked to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, is being recognized with the inaugural Mahoney Life Sciences Prize at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

A panel of expert judges from the life sciences sector observed that the “biomedical implications are significant” and “this could turn out to be one of ‘the’ pivotal studies in the effort to combat Alzheimer’s.” Hardy will receive the prize and present her research with life sciences experts and UMass officials and scientists at a breakfast ceremony on June 19 at the UMass Club in Boston.

Established by UMass Amherst alumni Richard, Robert and William Mahoney, the $10,000 prize is intended to recognize scientists from the university’s College of Natural Sciences whose work significantly advances connections between research and industry. The prize will be awarded annually to one faculty member who is the principal author of a peer-reviewed paper about original research. Eligible papers can be on any topic in the life sciences that focuses on new research with translatable applications to industry and society.

“We had two purposes in establishing the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize,” said Richard Mahoney, former president and CEO of Monsanto. “To let science-based companies see the extraordinary R&D being done in their field by UMass scientists and to show the UMass scientists that the corporate life sciences community places a high value on research that they can use to solve problems or provide future growth opportunities.”

“Professor Hardy’s research rose to the top of three highly competitive rounds of review,” said Tricia Serio, dean of the College of Natural Sciences. “Her work exemplifies the outstanding translational research for which our faculty are well known.”

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said, “The Mahoney Life Sciences Prize, like much of what the Mahoney brothers have done for their alma mater, seeks to inspire and recognize the groundbreaking translational research being conducted by our faculty. The Mahoneys are truly visionaries, who are helping to catalyze the connections between UMass scientists and industry to benefit us all. We are deeply grateful for their extraordinary support.”

Richard, Robert and William Mahoney all received their degrees in chemistry from UMass Amherst and went on to become leaders in their own industries and serve as high-level alumni advisers to the campus.

Hardy’s research paper, “Multiple proteolytic events in caspase-6 self-activation impacts conformations of discrete structural regions,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September 2017.

A crystallographer and protein engineer who has developed tools and techniques for determining the structure and design of proteins, Hardy has for several years intensively investigated a group of “molecular scissors” – because they cut up proteins – known as caspases that are active in programmed cell death and inflammation. In particular, one known as caspase-6 is associated with neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases. Recently, Hardy called caspase-6 “an attractive molecular target for treatment of neurodegeneration,” and her lab has been characterizing the structural details of caspase-6 activation and function.

In their most recent research, Hardy used a new approach to reveal “distinct conformational dynamics in critical regions of the caspase-6 structure” that had not been observable by any other techniques. As a result, they offer “two important new findings” that shed more light on caspase-6’s mechanisms and note that the changes they describe “may inspire approaches for manipulating caspase-6 in the context of neurodegeneration.” The new molecular details of caspase-6 dynamics “provide a comprehensive scaffold for strategic design of therapeutic approaches to neurodegenerative disorders.”

The expert panel reviewing the research included Richard Brown, president and founder of Avia Biosystems; Richard Gregory, chief science officer, Immunogen; Dennis Guberski, president of Biomere; James McColgan, director of site technical services at Pfizer Global Manufacturing; Vic Myer, chief technology officer at Editas Medicine, and Chuck Sherwood, founder and president of Anika.

The nine other CNS faculty who were named as finalists in the Mahoney Prize competition will also participate in the June 19 event in Boston. They are Min Chen, chemistry; Peter Chien, biochemistry and molecular biology; Lili He, food science; Derek Lovley, microbiology; Leonid Pobezinsky, veterinary and animal sciences; Vincent Rotello, chemistry; S. Thuyumanavan, chemistry; Richard Vachet, chemistry, and Dong Wang, biochemistry and molecular biology.