Nikola Pavletich, 33
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Cancer is out-of-control growth, caused when a cell’s molecular brakes wear out, or its gas pedal gets stuck. Fixing cancer means getting under the hood, and Nikola Pavletich is fast becoming one of the field’s pre-eminent grease monkeys.
Pavletich uses X-ray crystallography to map the three-dimensional shape of the molecular components that control cell growth. It’s exacting work that’s usually done far from the limelight of the latest miracle cure. But Pavletich’s depiction of the structure of the tumor-supressing protein p53 in its molecular embrace of DNA landed his work in a Newsweek cover story. The reason? p53 plays a role in half of all cancers, and Pavletich’s pictures of the protein in action showed how it can malfunction. The work is a first step toward new drugs that prevent cancers, rather than just killing tumors with devastating side effects to patients. Pavletich’s technical skill is matched by a growing reputation for bold science. "Nikola is absolutely fearless in his choice of projects," says Carl Pabo, an MIT biology professor and Pavletich’s postdoctoral advisor