Orange Alert

SU chemist awarded Basil O’Connor Starter Scholar Research Award from March of Dimes

James Hougland is using award to fight rare genetic disorder in live births

Jan. 31, 2014, by Sarah Scalese

James Hougland
James Hougland
Advocates fighting to combat Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS), a rare genetic disorder that affects between one in 25,000 and one in 10,000 live births, now have a Syracuse University chemist in their corner. James Hougland, assistant professor of chemistry in The College of Arts and Sciences, has been awarded a Basil O’Connor Starter Scholar Research Award by the March of Dimes.

The March of Dimes is the leading nonprofit organization aimed at improving the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality. This research award is designed to support young scientists embarking on their independent research careers, and Hougland will receive $150,000 over two years to fund his research.

“Every day, children are born with diseases for which we still have yet to find a cure or effective treatment,” said Hougland. “I am thankful to the March of Dimes for the opportunity to play a part in efforts to alleviate the symptoms of PWS. I’m honored by their support of my research group’s work, and I am excited to continue our research toward the goal of developing potential new treatments for children with PWS.”

Children with PWS experience an array of symptoms, with excessive appetite and obesity often their most significant health threats. Hougland, who joined the SU faculty in 2010, says the discovery of the hormone ghrelin and its potential to control a child’s appetite is what sparked his interest to pursue this grant. 

“PWS patients have elevated levels of ghrelin in their bloodstreams, which may explain their insatiable desire to eat. Ghrelin requires a specific chemical modification to activate hunger signaling, and our research is aimed at designing a way to intercept and block that signal,” said Hougland. “I’m fascinated by the intersection of chemistry and biology, and ghrelin illustrates how a single chemical change can have dramatic biological consequences.”

Hougland added that the ultimate goal is to create drugs for treatment, as increased appetite contributes to obesity in children with PWS.

“This is a huge achievement for Jimmy, and I know I speak for our entire department in saying we are all very proud of him and excited to see what comes of his research,” said James Kallmerten, professor of chemistry and interim chair of the chemistry department. “Jimmy has chosen to work on a challenging research project with the potential to positively impact thousands of lives. The March of Dimes grant will allow him to turn his ground-breaking ideas into practical, clinical solutions to a critically important medical problem."

Hougland holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and was a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellow from 2006-2009.

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Sarah Scalese