March of Dimes awards Marisa Bartolomei, PhD, the 2024 March of Dimes Richard B. Johnston, Jr., MD prize

January 18, 2024

Recognized for Discoveries in Gene Imprinting & Impact of Environmental Exposures on Pregnancy, Prenatal Development

Arlington, VA, January 18, 2024 – March of Dimes, the leading organization fighting for the health of moms and babies, is pleased to announce Marisa Bartolomei, PhD, as the recipient of the 2024 March of Dimes Richard B. Johnston, Jr., MD Prize. This annual award honors an outstanding scientist who has advanced the science that underlies our understanding of pregnancy, birth, and prenatal development. Dr. Bartolomei is a Co-Director of the Epigenetics Institute at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, where she is also the Perelman Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology.

Over her 30-year career, Dr. Bartolomei has made instrumental discoveries on the function and expression of certain genes, called imprinted genes. These genes, whose proper expression is critical for healthy pregnancy and fetal development, can be severely affected by numerous factors, including environmental exposures throughout life and pregnancy.

“Dr. Bartolomei’s astounding body of work on how the abnormal expression of imprinted genes can lead to severe developmental errors and devastating diseases for babies has brought us closer to the development of critical diagnostic and therapeutic interventions,” said Dr. Emre Seli, Chief Scientific Officer at March of Dimes. “I am incredibly excited and honored to present Dr. Bartolomei with this award. She exemplifies the spirit of the prize through her dedication to bridging the divide between science at the bench and medicine at the bedside so the work we do today can improve outcomes for moms and babies tomorrow.”

This award, named in honor of Dr. Johnston, Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado and a former Medical Director at March of Dimes, carries a cash award and was created as a tribute to Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine. It is part of March of Dimes’ research strategy to address the multi-faceted nature of the maternal and child health crisis. To date, six recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Throughout her career, Dr. Bartolomei’s research has addressed the epigenetic mechanisms of genomic imprinting and germline reprogramming as well as the impact of early environmental exposures on epigenetic gene regulation. Imprinted genes, unlike traditional genes, normally express only one copy (one from the mother or one from the father). When things go wrong, as with an epigenetic mutation, these genes will express either both or neither of its copies. This can cause devastating developmental errors during pregnancy that lead to serious disease.

Dr. Bartolomei succeeded in identifying one of the first imprinted genes in 1991. Her later work identified connections between imprinted genes and early developmental disorders like Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome, which causes babies to grow too big in the womb and predisposes them to cancer, and Silver-Russell Syndrome, which causes babies to grow too slowly in utero. Her continued work in other related areas has improved our understanding of gene reprogramming, defects in expression, and the impact of environmental exposures, like Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, on healthy development. This work has revealed the critical role of imprinted genes in healthy development, opening new possibilities to prevent and cure disease.

“We are truly just getting started with imprinted genes,” Dr. Bartolomei said. “As the scientific community continues to discover the vital role these genes have in development, others are doing work on new screening tests, therapeutics, and interventions to ensure that imprinted genes are expressed properly, and if they are not, to invent treatments that can be administered to avoid the worst outcomes. And for me, this award is truly exhilarating—when I look at past awardees, some of whom have been important mentors and influenced my career, it’s really special.”

March of Dimes will present the award to Dr. Bartolomei at the 2024 Annual Meeting of the Society for Reproductive Investigation in Vancouver, British Columbia on March 16, 2024.

Dr. Bartolomei received her BS from the University of Maryland and PhD from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She completed postdoctoral training at Princeton University with Dr. Shirley Tilghman, President Emerita Princeton University. In 1993, Dr. Bartolomei was appointed as Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, rising to Professor in 2006. She was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2014 and is a Member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Find more information about the Prize here.

About March of Dimes

March of Dimes leads the fight for the health of all moms and babies. We support research, lead programs, and provide education and advocacy so that every family can have the best possible start. Building on a successful 86-year legacy, we support every pregnant person and every family. To learn more about March of Dimes, please visit marchofdimes.org.