Naomi Tjaden wins Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award

Naomi Tjaden, an MD-PhD student enrolled in the MD-PhD program at the University of Kansas Medical Center, has been selected for a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award. The National Institutes of Health-funded award supports the training of physician-scientists who can apply both their medical and research training to investigate problems of disease in humans.

The high-profile, competitive four-year fellowship will support Tjaden, who plans on pursuing pediatric gastroenterology and maintaining an active research program in the future, during the remaining research portion of her dual degree and the last two years of medical school.

Under the mentorship of Stowers Investigator Paul Trainor, PhD, Tjaden studies the role of vitamin A metabolism in the development of the embryonic gastrointestinal tract nervous system. Using mouse models deficient in enzymes necessary for converting vitamin A to retinoic acid, she will test the effects of retinoids on the proliferation, migration, and differentiation of a cell population called neural crest cells. These cells travel long distances to form structures in the heart and face, as well as the neurons of the peripheral nervous system, including those that innervate the gut.

Disruptions in neural crest cells have been linked to a variety of other birth defects, collectively known as neurocristopathies. A failure of neural crest cell development in the gut results in Hirschsprung’s disease, a congenital absence of neurons in a portion of the gastrointestinal tract. This congenital disorder occurs in one out of five thousand live births, and typically requires surgical correction. (This issue’s cover story discusses neural crest cells in more detail.)

Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA grants honor the late doctor for her service to the National Institutes of Health and her pioneering research toward the development of improved, safer polio vaccines.