Olivier Lichtarge, M.D., Ph.D., Cullen Chair and Professor of Molecular and Human Genetics and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a Principal Investigator at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, was honored with the 2023 Michael E. DeBakey Excellence in Research Award. He was one of six Baylor College of Medicine faculty members to receive the award this year. He and other awardees were honored at a ceremony at Baylor on Sept. 18, where they each presented a talk about the work for which they were recognized.
Dr. Lichtarge’s research combines computer analyses with experiments to understand the molecular evolution of genes and pathways — how their functions may be altered by genetic mistakes or how they may be re-engineered to new designs. Using this innovative approach, he has identified genes and molecular pathways linked to autism, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Lichtarge uses a mathematical equation that quantifies the evolutionary action of mutations on fitness to bridge molecular biology and population genetics. In his studies on autism spectrum disorders (ASD), this approach revealed characteristic differences in genes and processes linked to nerve transmission and neurodevelopment, shedding light on the molecular mechanisms of ASD. A key result was that the predicted fitness impact of variants correlated with the IQ of individuals with the conditions.
His work in cancer identified 460 genes undergoing selection in tumors. Some, not previously known, were then validated experimentally, providing an improved understanding in cancer biology. In his study of Alzheimer’s disease, he combines evolutionary calculations with machine learning. This approach uncovered immune response genes and showed that analyses of ever smaller patient cohorts still could robustly identify relevant genes.
Collectively, Dr. Lichtarge’s studies establish this new calculus of evolutionary fitness as a fundamental tool to discover disease mechanisms and inform precision medicine. His work unifies elementary concepts from mathematics, physics, and evolution into a single, coherent, and powerfully predictive model of life.
“We are very proud of our six award winners who are being recognized for their important work and significant publications over a three-year period,” said Baylor President, CEO and Executive Dean Dr. Paul Klotman. “It is appropriate that this award is named for Dr. Michael DeBakey. Not only was he Baylor College of Medicine’s first president but he also was an accomplished innovator and researcher.”
Baylor Vice President of Research Dr. Mary Dickinson recognized and thanked the DeBakey Medical Foundation for its support of the award, and introduced and presented the award to each recipient.