Dr. Shawon Debnath Honored with 2023 Tri-Institutional Breakout Award

a woman in a patterned dress posing for a portrait in front of a bush.

Dr. Shawon Debnath, a research associate in pathology and laboratory medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, has been honored with a 2023 Tri-Institutional Breakout Award for Junior Investigators. 

Weill Cornell Medicine, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and The Rockefeller University jointly present the awards annually to up to six exceptional investigators–at least one from each institution. The award includes a $25,000 prize. 

“I'm very thankful to the selection committee for giving me this prestigious award,” Dr. Debnath said. “I feel very deeply honored and happy to join my fellow peers from the other institutions.”

Dr. Debnath’s research in the lab of Dr. Matthew Greenblatt, an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, focuses on bone biology, specifically skeletal stem cells. Using a combination of 16-18 color flow cytometry that separates different cell types based on the types of proteins present on their cell surface, various transplantation models, genetic mouse models and single cell RNA sequencing, she was able to identify a type of stem cell that originates on the bone’s outer surface, called the periosteum.

These periosteal stem cells are required for normal bone formation by the periosteum and overall skeletal biomechanical strength in addition to fracture healing. Dr. Debnath found that the periosteal stem cells mediate distinct type of bone formation when compared with skeletal stem cells present inside the bone.

It had been known that bone forms via two distinct processes, one in which bone forms via a cartilage template that remodels into bone (endochondral bone formation) and one where a bone forms directly without a cartilage template (intramembranous bone formation). The periosteal stem cells that Dr. Debnath discovered is specialized for the direct formation of bone without cartilage when compared with the stem cells present inside the bone that mediates bone formation through a cartilage template. Thus, Dr. Debnath’s work has identified the cellular basis of the two fundamental pathways of bone formation. 

The findings, published in Nature in 2018, have propelled Dr. Debnath’s studies forward to understand further how skeletal stem cells can be targeted in therapeutic circumstances for maladies like osteoporosis, bone cancers and craniosynostosis, a condition in which a baby’s skull fuses before the brain is fully formed.  

“Based on the anatomic location, the skeletal stem cells will have different functions and different outcomes,” she said. “We need to first understand how these distinct specialized stem cells contribute to normal bone physiology in order to understand what factors drive changes in these stem cells to have pathologic outcomes in various skeletal diseases.”

Dr. Debnath is grateful for this Tri-Institutional Breakout Award and feels proud to represent her institution. “This award instills confidence that my scientific contribution is being acknowledged and I feel more passionate for my future scientific endeavors,” she said. “I am very thankful for my mentor Dr. Greenblatt, my fabulous lab colleagues and the support from my institution that have all contributed to my scientific career success and made me feel confident to open my own research lab.”

“This award is the culmination of a tremendous amount of hard work and scientific risk-taking by Dr. Debnath,” Dr. Greenblatt said. “I'm so proud of her accomplishments and happy to see her work be recognized.”

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