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Environmental Factor, January 2012

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Copeland named chief of Laboratory of Molecular Genetics

By Eddy Ball

William Copeland, Ph.D.

Copeland chaired the 2011 UMDF symposium in July (see story), which featured presentations by several NIEHS intramural researchers and grantees. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D., announced Dec. 1 the selection of lead researcher William Copeland, Ph.D., as chief of the Institute’s Laboratory of Molecular Genetics (LMG). Copeland, who leads the LMG’s Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group, had served as acting chief since July, when he succeeded longtime LMG Chief Jan Drake, Ph.D.

Congratulating Copeland on his appointment, Zeldin expressed his confidence in Copeland’s leadership and his pursuit of scientific excellence. “I have no doubt Dr. Copeland will continue to lead the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics in an outstanding manner, while engaging in cutting-edge research,” Zeldin wrote. “Dr. Copeland’s research has contributed significantly to the understanding of mitochondrial related diseases, mitochondrial DNA mutagenesis, and the mechanism of toxicity of nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors.”

Mutagenesis central

Considered to be one of the premier centers for the study of environmentally linked genetic mutation, the LMG is composed of nine groups, with some 70 scientists investigating the fundamental mechanisms of genetic stability and instability. Their research into the interplay of environment and mutation has made important contributions to the understanding of a range of human diseases, including cancer, neurological disease, and diseases related to aging.

Copeland, who joined NIEHS in 1993, has devoted his scientific career to the study of what he considers one of the least understood and most intractable to treatment of all human diseases, authoring or co-authoring more than 96 peer-reviewed publications in the field. Among his lab’s many breakthroughs in the understanding of mitochondrial disease, the group’s studies on changes of mitochondrial DNA replication and stability caused by disease-associated mutations in the sole mitochondrial polymerase have characterized mutations that cause disease, and also described novel methods that allow further characterization of disease mutations and environmental health effects.

“Inherited mitochondrial diseases have a mortality rate roughly that of cancer, with very high rates of premature death,” Copeland explains. He is among leading experts who maintain that inherited and induced mitochondrial defects and their effects on energy production also contribute to the common diseases of aging, such as type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, stroke, and Alzheimer's disease.

As head of LMG, Copeland plans to lead by example in the advancement of molecular genetics research. He is also committed to supporting the lab’s strong mentoring program. His outstanding contributions to training and career development were recognized by NIEHS trainees with his selection as Mentor of the Year in 2005, and by NIH with the 2006 Director’s Mentoring Award.

In addition to his research at NIEHS, Copeland translates his research through service to education and advocacy groups. He is a spokesperson for mitochondrial disease research to researchers, clinicians, and patients through his contributions to the Mitochondria Research Society as president from 2005 to 2007 and the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation (UMDF) in several leadership roles (see text box).

Appreciation for service to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation

By UMDF CEO and Executive Director Charles Mohan

Dr. Copeland brings fresh insight and energy to the UMDF as he embraces any task we request of him. Along with his past service as the UMDF Grant Review Committee co-chairman and chairman from 2004 to 2008, he continues to review UMDF grant applications. As chair of the UMDF Research Policy Review Committee, Dr. Copeland leads the review of UMDF-funded grant project reports and makes recommendations regarding new precedent-setting grant policies. He is on the UMDF Ask the Mito Doc team, answering basic research and genetics questions for our patients and family members. Dr. Copeland serves on the Scientific and Medical Advisory Board and the 2012 symposium planning committee. He was chair of the 2011 symposium planning committee and served on the committee for four years prior to that, as well.

Dr. Copeland is a real teacher, and is looked up to as a leader in the mitochondrial community, both lay and professional. Molding the minds of future generations of researchers, he encourages his entire lab staff to attend our symposium, gives leading-edge symposium lectures, and participates in informal conversations with lay and scientific attendees.

To say that we at the UMDF appreciate and enjoy Dr. Copeland is an understatement. Having him on our team has directly enhanced our mission to promote research and education for the diagnosis, treatment, and cure of mitochondrial disorders, and to provide support to affected individuals and families.

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