Heart Institute Postdocs Win Malaniak Awards

Geoffrey de Couto, PhD, (left) and Shan-Shan Zhang, PhD, present their winning studies.

Two postdocs at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute proved they have their fingers on the pulse of pioneering science by winning the 2016 Bohdan (Danny) Malaniak Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Research. Geoffrey de Couto, PhD, and Shan-Shan Zhang, PhD, each received a $3,000 prize for separate studies showing how hearts recover from injury.

De Couto and Zhang were among four finalists who presented their studies Jan. 26 at a well-attended ceremony in Harvey Morse Auditorium. Named for Cedars-Sinai's former associate vice president for academic affairs, the annual award aims to foster basic and translational research by promoting investigative curiosity.

Malaniak (1930-2013), a strong advocate for research, was "a glowing light that led our institution to where we are today," Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, said in opening remarks. Spiegel succeeded Leslie Raffel, MD, who retired last year, as chair of the Malaniak award committee and site director of the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI).

Sixteen studies were submitted for the 2016 prize. The vote on the two winners, scored by a six-member expert panel, "was clearly very tight," said Spiegel, who also is professor of medicine and directs Health Services Research and the Cedars-Sinai Center for Outcomes Research and Education. "We're going out to decimal places."

Award judge Gislâine Martins, PhD, Cedars-Sinai assistant professor of medicine, quizzes a finalist during presentations at the 2016 Bohdan (Danny) Malaniak Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Research.

De Couto's winning entry showed how an experimental treatment based on cardiosphere-derived cells (CDCs) functions to aid recovery from heart attacks, in which a reduction in blood flow damages heart muscle. In studies with laboratory rats and in vitro cell work, he discovered that CDCs retooled a specific immune-cell population, known as macrophages, to make them more effective in protecting the heart following injury. These altered macrophages helped remove dead cardiac muscle cells and reduce inflammation.

The study was published last year in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. De Couto was first author, and Heart Institute Director Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD, was corresponding author. De Couto, who holds a PhD in physiology from the University of Toronto in Canada, is a regenerative medicine fellow at the Heart Institute.

Zhang's winning entry focused on the mechanism by which a certain protein helps cells survive when heart tissues are injured by insufficient blood flow. Zhang, who holds a PhD in cardiac development and gene regulation from the University of California, San Francisco, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Heart Institute laboratory of Robin Shaw, MD, PhD. Zhang was first author and Shaw the corresponding author on the study.

The two other finalists were Szu-Ting Chou, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Julia Ljubimova, MD, PhD, who presented a study on glioblastoma multiforme brain tumors; and Sabrina Mueller, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of David Underhill, PhD, who presented a study on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a type of "superbug" that resists antibiotic treatment.