Guyanese doctor wins US$2.5M Pioneer Award

Guyanese doctor wins US$2.5M Pioneer Award

February 23, 2010

Note: Dr. Benjamin was born in Beterverwagting, East Coast Demerara.

SALT LAKE CITY—A pioneering model that a University of Utah cardiologist proposes as a cause of heart disease is the kind of creative thinking the National Institutes of Health (NIH) likes to see—and reward with one of its most prestigious honors, a $2.5 million 2009 Pioneer Award.

Ivor J. Benjamin, M.D., professor of internal medicine and biochemistry and the Christi T. Smith Endowed Chair of Cardiovascular Research at the U of U School of Medicine, believes that one of the body’s most powerful antioxidants—molecules generally believed to protect the heart—actually might lead to disease in the heart and other organs when a gene mutation causes the body to overproduce the molecule.

Dr. Ivor J. Benjamin. M.D., FAHA, FACC

Dr Benjamin was born and grew up in Beterverwagting, East Coast Demerara. He was schooled at Central High School in Smyth Street Georgetown, as did his sister Edris.
His theory, which stirred some controversy when Benjamin presented it in a 2007 study in the journal Cell, represents a paradigm shift in understanding the causes of heart disease.
But with the conviction that new and unconventional ideas propel science forward, and after a highly competitive and critical review process, the NIH chose Benjamin to further investigate the idea as one of only 18 researchers to receive a Pioneer Award.

NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., presented Benjamin and the other recipients their awards in a ceremony at the agency’s headquarters in Bethesda, Md.
Benjamin is receiving $500,000 annually for five years to pursue his research. Much of the Pioneer Award programme’s appeals is that it encourages researchers to think outside the box while receiving substantial funds to test their ideas, according to Collins.

“The fact that we continue to receive such strong proposals for funding through the program attests to the wealth of creative ideas in so many fields of science today,” he said.
The Pioneer Awards are part of a larger programme of 115 grants intended to foster innovative and potentially transformative medical research. The NIH awarded a total of $13.5 million to this year’s Pioneer Award winners.
An estimated 3 million Americans suffer from heart failure, with 500,000 new cases diagnosed annually. Disease that leads to heart failure long has been associated with oxidative stress, the process in which the body produces “free radical” molecules in response to oxygen intake.
Once they’re produced, free radicals roam the body, creating chemical reactions that damage organs and other tissue.
To protect cells from free radicals, the body makes antioxidants. Benjamin’s work focuses on a particular antioxidant, reduced glutathione, which is produced when a protein called alpha B-Crystallin unfolds inside of cells.

When mutated versions of the human gene that makes alpha B-Crystallin were placed in mice, however, certain metabolic pathways were improperly activated, which led to excessive production of reduced glutathione and heart damage in the animals. Benjamin terms this condition “reductive stress.”

Until recently, reductive stress hasn’t been looked at in the context of disease. But Benjamin showed that mice with too much reduced glutathione had increased heart failure rates, while those with normal levels of the antioxidant did not develop heart failure.
Given the role of antioxidants, the theory is counterintuitive, Benjamin acknowledges. But if he’s correct, it could lead to developing an entirely new class of “antireductant” drugs to treat or even prevent heart disease caused by reductive stress.
“Our findings show that the potential for reductive stress causing heart disease definitely warrants more investigation,” Benjamin says. “The Pioneer Award will enable us the freedom to investigate the consequences and mechanisms of reductive stress and, hopefully, do the kind of work that can be transformative.”

Benjamin’s research represents the kind of imaginative and searching science that the U of U values in its faculty, according to Lorris Betz, M.D., Ph.D., University of Utah senior vice president for health sciences. “As a research university, we want our investigators to expand the bounds of science, even when that means questioning or contradicting conventional theories and wisdom,” Betz says.
“Ivor Benjamin does just that. On behalf of the entire University of Utah health sciences community, I congratulate and applaud Dr. Benjamin for being recognized with this tremendous honor.”

Although the Pioneer Award is in his name, Benjamin is quick to credit his laboratory team and colleagues with making the award possible. “I am honored and humbled to have been chosen for the award,” he says. “But the real story is my multidisciplinary team. They deserve a lot of credit, too”.


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  • Harold  On March 9, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    As one proud Centralite to another. I’m proud of you brother. Way to go, Central.

  • Clyde Duncan  On August 20, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    I must admit, it warms the cockles of one’s heart to hear of this scholarship from a high school in Guyana, as opposed to the other two – for a change!!

  • Ron. Persaud  On August 22, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    “…the other two”? “…for a change!!”?
    Come on, man. CHS ranks up there with the best of them. I take it that the “other two” are ‘Queens’ and ‘Saints’ (not necessarily in that order).
    During my tenure at GUYSUCO Abdul Baksh was Education & Training Officer.
    He attended CHS and taught there.
    For me, he was Edification & Training Officer.

  • Pat Adair  On August 24, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Ron, your comment may be a bit sexist. Couldn’t it have been Queens and Bishops? Either way, I am proud of my Central brother.

  • de Castro compton  On September 1, 2014 at 5:13 am

    Let me enter the fray
    Education education education
    Competition in education or educating should be more focused
    on the student not the establishment or results.
    Learning is not about passing exams or results …a necessary
    statistic in formulating change….improvement.
    We never stop learning and with the technology
    available today the sky is the limit !
    We can also ‘overeducate’…..absorb so much info
    that 99% becomes useless/obsoleted in our fields
    of interest….Medicine a good example…..Choice
    in drug prescriptions by GP or CHEMISTS….
    Most practicing GP s in UK must do a post graduate
    course just to keep up with drugs research.
    Needless to say drug cartels fund that research !!!!

    Having strayed a bit from subject ‘education’
    UK now has more over qualified rocket scientists
    than engineers plumbers carpenters electricians
    butchers gardeners farmers….the list is endless….
    skills enhancement is as important if not more important
    than doctors lawyers professors et al…political science at
    the bottom of the list….ha ha !
    QC SSC CHS…BUS UC are all grand institutions in their own
    right but would like to see more emphasis on colleges
    of further education…..
    Today there are more universities in UK than a decade
    ago..colleges becoming universities….two of my children
    obtained their masters attending CRAWLEY COLLEGE of further education….CC will soon become UNI OF CRAWLEY..
    The point am making is obvious…..we cant all be rocket scientists !….who will build and maintain that rocket !

    Congratulations to brother IVOR… inspirational achievement in his sphere of interest…..he has set the
    goal/example of what is possible if we remain focused
    on our objectives ‘purpose in life’
    With respect and admiration for another guyanese ‘first’

    Viva Ivor
    Viva Guyana
    Viva guyanese


  • Cliff  On September 2, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    I am also an old boy from Central under the tutelage of J. C. Luck and B. A. Adams, his deputy. In those days, CHS was on par with Queen’s College as they churned out many professionals who served this country well. Many past Judges, Doctors, Accountants etc who passed through J.C. Luck hands are now deceased.

  • de Castro compton  On September 2, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Sad but hopefully the memories live forever in the minds and hearts of those who follow….our future is in their hands ..
    for those who have never proved the ‘non-existence‘ of
    an interlect above ours.!!! The God idea !
    Scientific should focus on proving a God exist…Positive
    As opposed to proving that one does not exists…negative

    My spill

  • Albert  On September 3, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Could science prove whether or not a god exist?
    At the corner of Leopold and Breda Streets there was a bakery owned by a Portuguese fellow name La Rose. The bakery was about 1+1/2 blocks away from CHS. At midday a large number of CHS male students would flock there to buy butter flap with cheese and a small lemonade. The buying order was “give me one with and one without” meaning one butter flap with half once of cheese and the other one without and a small lemonade. Cost: butter flap 4cents,
    cheese 3cents, lemonade 3cents…..a hardship lunch for 10 cents.
    Does any CHS student on board recall this. I know two of those guys who became lawyers in England. Wonder what the female students had for lunch during hard times.

    • de Castro compton  On September 3, 2014 at 12:27 pm

      Easier to prove it does….religious indoctrination of masses.
      More easily accepted !
      To prove it doesn’t satisfies the minorities….
      mostly intellectuals and philosophers !

      My spin

  • de Castro compton  On September 3, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Pattercake or was it pancake with mauby…?
    In SSC I had custard blocks from a thermos flask
    a penny a block ! Today its ‘one cornetto’ from walls ice cream
    or Magnum…..price. ?
    Where are all these vendors today ?
    How times they are a changing !

  • Ramchandra Singh  On November 26, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    I attended Central High School from 1971-1976. I was in the same class with Ivor Benjamin and was the top student every term, every year winning the Clara Luck scholarship every term.
    I followed my family in business and own TRUEVALUE BLDG on King street just behind ACME.
    I would love to meet /hear from students of my years to reminisce on the good old days-like Bill Llewlyn,Ivor Benjamin,FAZIL Yusuf,Donald Singh,etc,

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