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Two Distinguished Researchers to Receive Scholar Awards at Pitt Ceremonies

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A researcher who hopes to find effective treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and another who is looking for biomarkers to detect early colon cancer will be honored this week with awards that support education programs to broaden awareness of these deadly diseases.

Robert J. Ferrante, Ph.D., professor of neurological surgery, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has been chosen as the first recipient of the Leonard Gerson Distinguished Scholar Award, which will be presented on Thursday, Oct. 6, at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, 4215 Fifth Ave., Oakland, at an event sponsored by Pitt’s Department of Neurological Surgery.

Three months ago, Dr. Ferrante brought to Pitt from Boston University his bench-to-bedside translational program and 20 years of experience to augment ongoing research and clinical efforts in degenerative diseases of the brain, particularly ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He has led efforts to develop animal models of these complex conditions and to bring promising drug candidates to human trials.

“I am humbled and pleased to be selected for the Leonard Gerson Award, and applaud these efforts to raise awareness about ALS and the need for aggressive research,” Dr. Ferrante said. “This disease is like a runaway train, and so far nothing we have thrown at it has been able to slow down its progression.”

The award was established by Sandy Gerson Snyder, of Squirrel Hill, in memory of her father, Leonard, who died from ALS complications three months after he was diagnosed.

Dr. Ferrante will talk about his research program and his hopes of creating a clinical trials center for ALS at Pitt and UPMC. Other presenters include Robert Friedlander, M.D., professor and chair, Department of Neurological Surgery; and David Lacomis, M.D., professor, Departments of Neurology and Pathology.

In addition, Neil H. Alexander, 46, of O’Hara, who was diagnosed with ALS in June and recently began participating in a clinical trial, will share his experiences.

At first, “it felt like there was nothing that could be done,” he said. “It’s all about trying to extend the time before the disease progresses. We have this incredible medical community, but in the area of ALS, we’re not as good as we could be. Events and awards like these raise awareness and will help build expertise and bring trials here.”

The award event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Cynthia Haston at 412-647-8461 or

On Friday, Oct. 7, the Sadie Gerson Distinguished Scholar Award will be presented in a private ceremony sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute to Sanford Markowitz, M.D., Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. Dr. Markowitz grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Peabody High School.

His research focus is identifying biomarkers that can provide early indications of colon cancer, and he has discovered gene mutations that contribute to the disease.

The Sadie Gerson Award honors expertise in colon cancer research and was established by Mrs. Snyder in memory of her mother, who died of the disease.