Brian A. Kelch, PhD, named 2014 Pew Scholar

Young investigator one of 22 early career researchers in this year’s class

By Jim Fessenden

UMass Medical School Communications

June 24, 2014
  Brian A. Kelch, PhD, was named a 2014 Pew Scholar by the Pew Charitable Trusts. He is the seventh UMMS faculty member to receive the award.
  Brian A. Kelch, PhD, was named a 2014 Pew Scholar by the Pew Charitable Trusts. He is the seventh UMMS faculty member to receive the award.

Brian A. Kelch, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, has been named a 2014 Pew Scholar by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides $240,000 in funding over four years to young investigators of outstanding promise who are doing biomedical research relevant to the advancement of human health. Dr. Kelch is one of 22 early career researchers named to this year’s class and the seventh UMMS faculty member to receive the award.

“It’s tremendously exciting to be included among this year’s outstanding class of Pew Scholars,” said Kelch. “The Pew Scholars Program provides young researchers an opportunity to develop new collaborations and exchange ideas from a network of established and newly independent scientists doing innovative and creative research.”

Kelch, who joined UMMS in 2012, will use the Pew award to elucidate the mechanical principles of the molecular engine that drives the production of many disease-causing viruses. This powerful molecular motor, if disrupted, has the potential to be a new therapeutic target for antiviral treatments.

Most viruses consist of a set of genetic instructions—either DNA or RNA—inside a container made of protein. For viruses that use double-stranded DNA as their genetic material, including the herpes virus and the adenovirus that causes respiratory infections, the protein-based shell or “capsid” is assembled first, and the viral DNA is then pumped into it.

“The molecular machine that performs this pumping is one of the strongest biological motors known,” Kelch said. “The pressure inside the viral capsid is 10 times that of bottled champagne. The motor has to generate a tremendous amount of force in order to get the DNA inside that tight space.”

Using an innovative combination of structural, biochemical and biophysical techniques, Kelch and his lab will explore how this motor recognizes the viral DNA and pushes the DNA into the capsid.

Kelch joins a community of more than 500 Pew scholars whose ranks include multiple recipients of Nobel Prizes, Lasker Awards and MacArthur Fellowships.

Launched in 1985, the Pew scholars program supports top U.S. scientists at the assistant professor level and provides funding to seed innovation at the start of their independent research careers, allowing them to take calculated risks and follow unanticipated leads to maximize the benefits of their research for society. They are selected based on proven creativity by a national advisory committee composed of eminent scientists, including chairman Craig C. Mello, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and distinguished professor of molecular medicine and cell & developmental biologyat UMMS, himself a 1995 Pew scholar and a 2006 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine.

“Scientific breakthroughs often come from seemingly unlikely origins, which is why it’s so important to give young scientists the freedom and the support they need to pursue their most creative ideas,” Dr. Mello said. “It is our privilege to help these outstanding investigators pursue new research paths and work with peers across disciplines in order to advance biomedical science and ultimately benefit human health.”

“This award allows me to augment a line of research in our lab that started off as a side project, but which has now become a critical component of the work we’re doing,” said Kelch.

Kelch received a doctorate in biochemistry and biophysics in 2007 from the University of California, San Francisco, where he worked with David A. Agard, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics. He conducted postdoctoral research with 1989 Pew Scholar and former Pew Scholar advisor John Kuriyan, PhD, chancellor’s professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Past UMMS Pew Scholars Program recipients include:

  • 2011: Thomas Fazzio, PhD, assistant professor of molecular medicine;
  • 2010: David Guertin, PhD, assistant professor of molecular medicine;
  • 2005: Lambertus van den Berg, PhD, associate professor of molecular medicine;
  • 2000: Phillip D. Zamore, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Gretchen Stone Cook Chair of Biomedical Sciences and professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology;
  • 1995: Craig C. Mello, PhD, 2006 Nobel Laureate, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and distinguished professor of molecular medicine and cell biology; and
  • 1992: John M. Leong, MD, PhD, professor of microbiology & physiological systems.

UMMS Pew Latin American Fellows in the Biomedical Sciences include:

Related links on UMassMedNow:
Fuxman Bass named 2012 Pew Latin American Fellow
Thomas Fazzio named 2011 Pew Scholar
UMass Medical School Researcher David Guertin, PhD, Named 2010 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences
UMass Medical School researcher named Pew Scholar