Prineville native sets the world of science abuzz
Nationally recognized genetic reseacher and pathologist at Harvard Medical School gat her start in PrinevilleWorking with flies for a living doesn't sound like a very appealing childhood dream for a little girl from Prineville to have, but this is what Mel B. Feany, a pathologist at Harvard Medical School (HMS) has decided to do. With her colleague Welcome Bender she has successfully engineered fruit flies in the lab to learn about Parkinson's disease, creating a shockwave of discovery and innovation which reverberates even outside the walls of science.
Understandably proud of the achievements of their daughter, longtime Prineville residents, Pat and Marion Feany speak of Mel in glowing terms. They describe her as a remarkable girl who advanced quickly though school driven by a desire to learn, motivated by an innate curiosity about world around her.
"Mel liked to read," Marion Feany reflected sitting in the modest kitchen at their home in Prineville. "Right at this table she would read me the Portland Oregonian starting when she was about seven. She did like to read and she spent a lot of time at the library." Feany believes that the fact that Mel was an only child may put her ahead of the pack. "Mel told me that an awful lot of people at Harvard have come from families with only one child," she said.
In high school Mel Feany immersed herself in physics, chemistry, and Spanish classes and was consistently recognized as a high achiever. Her mother accredits the many family trips to museums exploring history and science for igniting Mel's seemingly incredible intellect.
There may be something to the notion that children inherit the capacity for intelligence from their mothers, as Marion Feany is no stranger to the scientific world herself. At one time she worked as a chemist and helped develop rocket flares and worked on the simulated atomic bomb in California, where Mel was born.
Already demonstrating a talent for academia Feany graduated from Crook County High School when she was only 16 years old, as the 1982 Valedictorian. After applying to many colleges, including U.C.L.A, U.S.C., and Portland State, which did not accept her because her applications were not received early enough, she was accepted at Harvard University, and eventually went on to become the 1986 Harvard Cum Laude and the 1995 Einstein Sigma Cum Laude.
"Growing up in a small town had advantages and disadvantages," Mel Feany said of her childhood in Crook County. "Prineville was safe, and the people friendly and caring. Core values of honesty and charity were esteemed, and generally enacted. The academic and social mores of large cities like Boston and New York, where I received my training, are rather different. However, I certainly was able to adapt."
For aficionados of the world of science and discovery Mel Feany is pretty much a household name, ranking right up there with Candice Pert, Stephen Hawking, Jacques Cousteau, and Dian Fossey. In the exciting world of genetic science Feany is often called upon to explain genetic factors influencing neurodegeneration and she has stationed herself on the front lines of the genes and genomes battle, waging a war to unravel the mystery of diseases - hopefully leading to the elimination of the suffering they cause.
Feany's focus in on Parkinson's disease. A disease that affects more than half a million Americans, including Attorney General Janet Reno, former heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali and actor Michael J. Fox.
Parkinson's disease is described as a neurological condition that affects a small area of brain cells. Gradual degeneration of this area causes a reduction of a brain chemical called dopamine. The loss of dopamine causes sufferers to become clumsy, their movement to become stiff and their muscles to spasm. People with Parkinson's disease often develop a blank mask-like facial appearance and an expressionless monotone voice.
Fruit flies were chosen for Feany's study because of their genetic simplicity. They are common, inexpensive, and have a short 60 day life span which allows new drugs and ideas to be tested with rapid results. Also, there is a deep and perhaps surprising similarity between fly and human neurons and genes. These genes are easily tampered with, and due to the flies' short life span, they rapidly develop symptoms which closely model the human disease.
One of the main focuses of Feany's research right now deals with fibrous deposits called Lewy bodies which accumulate and eventually kill healthy dopamine producing neurons. "There are many potential applications of the Parkinson's model," Feany explained. "We are particularly excited about two areas that capitalize on the strengths of fruit flies compared to mammalian models like the alpha-synuclein transgenic mice recently described in `Science'."
Mel's research won't just apply to Parkinson's Disease. This ground breaking study is also significant to the study of any disease that is related to the genes.
It's the ingenious use of the fruit fly model that will hopefully speed the understanding scientists have about how disease works. "We expect that having an easily manipulated animal model that so closely mimics the human disease will speed drug discovery," she said.
Mel Feany _ household name, even in her own home town.