NU prof wins Early Career Award for genetic research

Prof. Annelise Barron found a new way to explore human genes, a study that could help doctors target genetic diseases and prescribe the correct medicines.

And all she got was a mug and a T-shirt.

Barron, an assistant professor in chemical engineering, was one of 60 recipients in April of the 1999-2000 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

She was honored for a project she proposed to the National Institute of Health in 1998: to improve technology for DNA decoding sequences.

Decoding the three billion bases of one person’s DNA can take 15 years. But once researchers on the human genome project decode one sequence, they can compare DNA between individuals.

Understanding the genetic code can help doctors determine how a drug affects each patient, so they can prescribe the proper dosages of medicine. The result is medicine tailored to the individual.

“The real dream is, once the human genome is fully decoded and better understood, that any person would be able to get an individual medical treatment for any disease that includes a genetic component,” said Barron, who has worked at Northwestern for three years.

The project will also contribute to research on hereditary diseases, such as cancer.

“I’d like to make a significant impact with my research on the way cancer is diagnosed and treated,” Barron said. “And I hope to train a lot of fantastic graduate students who go on to do important work themselves, kind of like having a family tree.”

The human genome project isn’t limited to humans. It’s also of use to researchers working to isolate a human gene and compare it to the complementary gene in an animal.

“The application will be broad — eventually we’ll be able to understand biology in a much more detailed way,” Barron said.

The award is only the beginning. Barron will continue her work on the human genome project with eight graduate and two postdoctoral students. She also teaches two classes this quarter, Chemical Engineering 210 and 212.

Barron earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and a graduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley.