Published: Sept. 17, 1997

University of Colorado at Boulder Assistant Professor Min Han has been named an investigator by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, bringing the number of the prestigious appointments on the Boulder campus to four.

Seventy new appointments nationwide in 1997 by the Chevy Chase, Md.-based Hughes Institute brings the total number of Hughes investigators to more than 330 at 72 medical schools, universities and research institutes. Investigators range from Nobel laureates to outstanding young researchers working on potentially ground-breaking discoveries early in their careers.

Han is a faculty member in the molecular, cellular and developmental biology department. He joins chemistry and biochemistry Professor and Nobel laureate Thomas Cech, chemistry and biochemistry Associate Professor Natalie Ahn and MCD biology Associate Professor Robert Boswell as HHMI investigators currently on the CU-Boulder campus.

There are seven Hughes investigators in Colorado. The others are James Maller of the CU Health Sciences Center and John Kappler and Philippa Marrick of Denver's National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine.

“This prestigious appointment of Professor Han by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute underscores the national stature of our faculty and the growing reputation enjoyed by the university,” said CU-Boulder Chancellor Richard Byyny. “The Hughes Institute is internationally known for recruiting the best and the brightest for its biomedical research and education programs.”

The 1997 Hughes investigators were selected through a national competition that invited nominations from more than 200 institutions. More than 370 nominations were received. The last national competition to select Hughes investigators was in 1994, when CU-Boulder’s Ahn and Boswell were selected.

Han and his research group are investigating cell-to-cell communications in a nematode known as C. elegans, considered by researchers to be a superior organism for genetic studies. The team is studying a cascade of biochemical events that begins when external signals activate proteins inside a cell, which activate additional proteins and eventually lead to activity in chromosomes in the cell nucleus.

Such “cascades” eventually program cells to differentiate into specific cell types for particular organs of the body. The process has relevance to human diseases, which have similar signaling sequences that occasionally mutate and cause cancers and other diseases. “Cancer cells have escaped their normal development programs,” said Han. “They continue to grow and divide and never assume the roles they were supposed to assume as mature cells.”

Han’s group also is studying how different cells come together to form specific organs and how cell movements contribute to the invasive properties of tumor cells. Another project in Han’s lab involves a study of the genetics of macular degeneration, the number one cause of blindness in the United States.

Like Cech, Ahn and Boswell, Han becomes a research employee of the Hughes Institute but will remain at CU-Boulder as a faculty member and researcher. In addition to paying their salaries and benefits, the Institute provides investigators with financial support for equipment, supplies and research personnel.

Han received his bachleor’s degree from Peking University in Beijing and his doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology before coming to CU-Boulder as a faculty member in 1991. He previously has been a Lucille P. Markey Scholar in Biomedical Science and a Searle Scholar.

Hughes investigators conduct basic biomedical research in cell biology and regulation, genetics, immunology, neuroscience and structural biology. In recent years, Hughes investigators have made significant discoveries related to AIDS, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, cardiac arrhythmia, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, obesity and many other medical problems.

Established in 1953 by aviator-industrialist Howard Hughes, the institute has an endowment of about $9.6 billion. The largest private philanthropy in the United States, the Hughes Institute has a budget of $455 million for the current fiscal year.

In addition to conducting medical research, the institute has awarded millions of dollars in grants to U.S. institutions in recent years to strengthen science education. The initiative includes $3.8 million in grants to CU-Boulder since 1989 to enhance undergraduate programs in biomedical education.