Professor Marie Heffern in a chemistry lab wearing a blue lab coat.
Assistant Professor Marie Heffern. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

UC Davis Chemist Marie Heffern Wins Hartwell Foundation Award

Although trace metals such as copper, zinc and cobalt play a pivotal role in human health, not much is known about how the body uses these elements. A better understanding of the role and influence of metals could lead to new biomarkers and diagnostic tests for metabolic disorders such as diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), says UC Davis professor Marie Heffern, who specializes in bioinorganic chemistry. 

The Hartwell Foundation awarded Heffern, an assistant professor in the College of Letters and Science’s Department of Chemistry, a 2018 Individual Biomedical Research Award to study metal micronutrient status as a biomarker and treatment target for obesity and metabolic disease. The award for innovative, early-stage, cutting-edge biomedical research with the potential to benefit children of the United States provides funding for $100,000 of direct cost per year for three years and designation as a Hartwell Investigator. 

The Hartwell grant will support Heffern’s work on the role of metals in the endocrine system, a field of research she calls metalloendocrinology. “My hypothesis is that metal status might be an early indicator of metabolic disorders,” said Heffern. “For example, deficiencies in copper are linked to NAFLD in its early stages, when the disease is reversible.” In addition to basic biochemical research on trace metals, Heffern also plans to develop new analytical methods to examine metals in the body. “I’m excited to see what questions can be answered with better tools to measure these metals,” she said.

The Hartwell Foundation seeks to inspire innovation and achievement by offering individual researchers financial support to early-stage biomedical research that has not qualified for funding from traditional sources. Each year, the Hartwell Foundation invites its Top Ten Centers of Biomedical Research, and a limited number of other institutions, to participate in a competition for its Individual Biomedical Research Awards that includes other designated institutions eligible for limited participation. UC Davis has been invited to participate every year since 2008, and since 2011 the university has been designated a Hartwell Top Ten Center. Since 2008, a total of 10 UC Davis researchers have received Hartwell awards.

In addition, by having a UC Davis faculty member win a Hartwell award, the university also qualified to receive a Hartwell Fellowship to fund a postdoctoral researcher for specialized training in biomedical research. The fellowship provides $50,000 direct cost per year for two years. 

Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science

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