For leading his team in advancing potentially life-changing research fueled by record levels of grant funding, chemical biologist Yftah Tal-Gan has been awarded the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation’s Early Career Innovator Award for 2020.
“Being among such an elite group of colleagues and great scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno, I’m truly humbled to receive this University-wide honor,” Tal-Gan said. “I’m thankful for the support of my colleagues and my students from the Department of Chemistry. It is their success that makes this team’s success possible.”
In just his fifth year in the Department of Chemistry, “Dr. Tal-Gan has built the most distinguished research program I have ever seen in my 27 years on this campus,” Vincent Catalano, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry, wrote in recommending him for the award. “Professor Tal-Gan studies the chemical communication between cells (quorum sensing), and his research straddles the diffuse boundaries of chemistry, biology and medicine.”
“I fell in love with bacterial communication, and that was it. I never looked back,” Tal-Gan said in a Nevada Today interview this past January. “It’s just fascinating, so cool.”
Tal-Gan, who joined the chemistry department as an assistant professor in chemical biology in 2014, has harnessed that love for his field of study to become a prolific generator of successful grant proposals from the National Institutes of Health (National Institute of General Medical Sciences and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute), National Science Foundation and other top national funding programs.
“As an assistant professor, he has raised an astounding $4.6M in external support, of which over $3.2M is directly for his research,” Catalano said. “This is a remarkable and unprecedented accomplishment. More impressively, professor Tal-Gan secured major funding from multiple funding agencies suggesting his work is broadly valued by diverse groups of reviewers. On top of this already impressive record, he has a $3.2M NIH proposal pending where funds are requested for preclinical trials.”
The Foundation Early Career Innovator Award honors a full-time faculty or staff member employed with the University for six years or less, whose work exemplifies the spirit of innovation, commercialization and entrepreneurship, with consideration for impact and benefit to the public’s well-being. Foundation Innovation Awards are given annually to both an early career faculty member and an established faculty member and provide a $5,000 stipend to recipients.
“I’m grateful to the University for taking a chance on me and investing in me as a new professor,” Tal-Gan said. “They’ve given me the trust, freedom and flexibility to explore ideas and conduct research that we hope will one day improve or even save lives around the world.”
“It is impressive that professor Tal-Gan was able to develop this potential pharmaceutical in such a short period of time. Developing a potentially viable treatment in less than five years is truly exceptional and underscores the impact of his research.”
Tal-Gan has had more than 20 articles published, with several in top international journals for all fields of chemistry. Recently, professor Tal-Gan published his most innovative findings in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He has been invited to present his work at numerous universities and conferences, as well as several international meetings.
Tal-Gan has led discoveries towards the treatment of bacterial diseases, including Streptococcus pneumoniae. Tal-Gan’s approach focuses on blocking the bacteria’s signaling pathways, known as quorum sensing. By exploiting this mechanism, Tal-Gan’s team has demonstrated that it is possible to moderate or eliminate the bacteria’s disease-producing capability without killing them, preventing the unintended-but-certain resistances the world is grappling with today. He recently applied for patent protection of his synthesized peptides aimed at blocking quorum sensing for the treatment of pneumonia.
Tal-Gan completed his masters and doctoral work in organic chemistry under professor Chaim Gilon and professor Alexander Levitzki at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he’d earned his bachelor of science. His doctoral dissertation was on the development of new peptide-based inhibitors of Protein Kinase B (PKB/Akt) as potential drugs for cancer. He then joined the laboratory of Professor Helen Blackwell at University of Wisconsin-Madison as a postdoctoral research associate.
“It is impressive that professor Tal-Gan was able to develop this potential pharmaceutical in such a short period of time,” Catalano said. “With over 20,000 deaths in the U.S. annually, pneumonia is the leading cause of death of children under 5 years old worldwide and consumes billions of dollars of medical expenses annually. Developing a potentially viable treatment in less than five years is truly exceptional and underscores the impact of his research.”
As a key component of Tal-Gan’s success, he has attracted and mentors a diverse group of graduate students, undergraduates and post-doctoral researchers, many of whom have gone on to start distinguished careers.
“Today we see that COVID-19 and the threat of infectious diseases present enormous challenges for the entire global research community – it’s hard work, but vital and rewarding,” Tal-Gan said. “I’m especially energized working with our students and seeing them grow as scientists to go out and have an impact.”