HSCI's Kevin Eggan receives MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant

The phone calls come in September, and they can be life-changing for the approximately 25 men and women who receive them each year. They are from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the recipients— who have ranged from a Maine lobsterman to world-renowned figures in the sciences and the arts— are told that over the next five years they will be receiving a total of $500,000—to do with what they will.

When the call came this September for the Harvard Stem Cell Institute’s Kevin Eggan, PhD, he was as surprised as all the other winners—one does not apply for a MacArthur, nor does one know he or she is being considered.

“I’m in shock,” said Eggan, a 32-year-old Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and an international leader in embryonic stem cell research. Eggan, a member of HSCI’s Principal Faculty, said his “feeling of amazement [when I heard] slowly gave way to feeling extremely grateful and happy, and ecstatic, not just for myself, but for the people who work in my laboratory and for the field in general.”

An important step closer

Explaining why Eggan was chosen to be a MacArthur Fellow, the Foundation said that his work “is moving us an important step closer to developing therapeutic applications for diseases such as Parkinson’s and insulin-dependent diabetes, as well as providing an experimental platform for investigating genetic and environmental factors that give rise to such diseases.”

Eggan, who in addition to his HSCI and Harvard positions is an investigator of the Stowers Medical Institute, is currently focused on using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to create disease-specific stem cells containing the genome of individuals with diabetes. He also plans to create similar cell lines to advance the study and treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

“I was delighted to hear that the MacArthur Foundation has recognized a young investigator who is trying to establish truly novel approaches in stem cell biology,” said HSCI Scientific Co-Director Douglas A. Melton, PhD. “Stem cells are, of course, an important frontier in biomedicine, and Kevin is poised to become one of the world’s leaders in this field.” Eggan and Melton are collaborating on a number of projects.

David T. Scadden, MD, Scientific Co-Director with Melton, described Eggan as “one of those rare individuals who clearly and immediately sees the big picture, can seemingly instantly scope out a way forward, and then delivers on his ideas.”

Future promise

What makes the MacArthur Fellowships unique is that the winners are selected as much or more for their future promise as for their past accomplishments. Asked what he would do with the unexpected $500,000, Eggan said he sees “a real opportunity to use these funds for science education and education surrounding human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. This is particularly useful in our NIH-unfundable hESC research, and that’s where the lion’s share will go. It’s something I’ll be thinking very carefully about.”

Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman, MD, said he was “delighted that the MacArthur Foundation has chosen to honor Kevin Eggan by naming him a MacArthur Fellow, recognizing the enormous promise he has already shown in this early phase of his career in stem cell research. It is also reassuring to see an organization of the MacArthur Foundation’s stature invest in the promise of human embryonic stem cell research.”

‘Message of support’

Eggan noted what he sees as the import of having the MacArthur Foundation support embryonic stem cell research, which is largely opposed by the Bush administration. “What makes me the happiest is the mainstream message of support for embryonic stem cell research and SCNT research,” he said. “The fact that the MacArthur Foundation, an organization whose name you hear every day on NPR, is willing to support and stand behind this research—that for me is the most wonderful, amazing thing. This is one more reason to believe that the tide is turning in support of this important research.”