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Van Houten Moves to Posts at University of Pittsburgh

By Eddy Ball
September 2008

Ben Van Houten
As "hard as it is for me leave NIEHS," Van Houten, above, said he envisions the move to Pittsburgh as the logical next step in his efforts to build a program to understand the intricate web of cancer biology. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In August, Ben Van Houten, Ph.D., left his positions as branch chief and senior investigator at NIEHS to accept dual appointments at the University of Pittsburgh (UP) School of Medicine and the UP Cancer Center in Pennsylvania - returning to the state where he grew up on a small farm and first discovered his fascination with what he called "the beautiful and intricate spider web of biology."

AtUP( NIEHS, Van Houten will be the Richard M. Cyert Professor of Molecular Oncology in the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology and at the same time serve as the head of the Molecular and Cell Biology Program in the Hillman Cancer Center. The center is the flagship treatment and research facility of the UPMC Cancer Centers network with the region's most advanced imaging technologies for detecting cancer and monitoring treatment. Hillman is also home to a component of the NIH-funded General Clinical Research Center, which also provides support for the conduct of clinical trials.

After holding professorships at the University of Vermont and University of Texas Medical Branch, Van Houten began his career at NIEHS in 1999 with a precedent-setting dual appointment in the Division of Extramural Research (DERT) and Division of Intramural Research. In his work with DERT, Van Houten headed the Program Analysis Branch, which evaluates the Institute's extramural grant portfolio in order to set priorities, formulate strategic plans and assure the maximum benefits of research funding.

Among many evaluation tasks, Van Houten and his group were charged with tracking the productivity and science emanating from the portfolio of awards of the extramural grantees. Working with colleagues at NIEHS, Van Houten helped to create a web-based tool for bibliometric analyses of publications and grant productivity. What emerged three years later was the Scientific Publications Information Retrieval System (SPIRES), a model now used across the NIH.

The SPIRES query screen enables searching by publication parameters or by project parameters, and the search can yield a detailed publication summary, including an impact factor that is used as a metric for evaluating the significance of the science. SPIRES is being run and maintained by NIH Information Technology Specialist Paul Jordan.

As principal investigator of the DNA Repair and Mitochondrial Damage Group in the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics, Van Houten was responsible for training fellows and performing cutting-edge research. He quickly became known as a nurturing mentor with loyal trainees. Two of them, Visiting Fellows Ye Ping, Ph.D., and Hong Wang, Ph.D., plan to work with him in Pittsburgh.

During his tenure at NIEHS, Van Houten was recognized as a leading authority in DNA repair and mitochondrial disease. His research interests also included omics methodologies and systems biology approaches.

Among his many recent research accomplishments at NIEHS are two examples of transformative research that demonstrate the breadth of his scientific mastery, as well as his use of new approaches for investigating his research interests. In a study of innovative treatments for patients with the mitochondrial disease Friedreich's ataxia, a degenerative neurological condition, Van Houten's team used microarry analysis of gene expression to evaluate the effectiveness of antioxidant therapy. His group more recently employed nanotechnology to mark proteins with quantum dots for the first time to monitor DNA repair molecule by molecule in real time.

Van Houten has authored over 121 scientific articles, as well as 17 book chapters and reviews. He currently serves on the editorial boards of theJournal of Biological Chemistry, Mutation Research, DNA Repair and Mitochondrion. He was the chair of the 2005 Gordon Research Conference on Genetic Toxicology and co-chair of the 2007 Gordon Research Conference on Oxidative Stress and Disease.

Since joining the NIEHS, Van Houten has been recognized with five NIH Merit Awards and an NIH Director's Award. In May, he received the "Medal of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAS) for Support of Science," the most recent of many honors and awards.

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