The National Institutes of Health recently announced its 2016 Director’s New Innovator Award Program recipients with at least seven Indian Americans among those honored. The Director’s New Innovator Award Program was part of the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, and named 48 innovators as recipients Oct. 4. Though traditionally supporting researchprojects and not individual investigators, NIH’s High-Risk High-Reward program seeks to identify scientists with ideas that have the potential for high impact, but may be at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process. These awards encourage creative, outside-the-box thinkers to pursue exciting and innovative ideas in biomedical research.
The Innovator Award was established in 2007 and supports unusually innovative research from early-career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.
The award complements ongoing efforts by NIH and its institutes and centers to fund new investigators through R01 grants and other mechanisms.
Applicants’ qualifications are evaluated distinctly from the traditional NIH peer review “study section” process, emphasizing the individual’s creativity, the innovativeness of the research approaches and the potential of the project, if successful, to have a significant impact on an important biomedical or behavioral research problem.
Among the 2016 Innovators are Parijat Bhatnagar, Anshul Kundaje, Dr. Meena S. Madhur, Nikhil U. Nair, Rushika M. Perera, Rahul Satija and Dr. Arun P. Wiita.
Bhatnagar, of SRI International, was chosen for his project, “Self-Assembled Therapeutics with Spatiotemporal Resolution.”
The program director for cell-based medicine in SRI’s biosciences division, Bhatnagar’s research is in developing cellular therapeutics that can actively seek disease microenvironments, assess the disease burden, and synthesize proportionate amounts of therapeutic peptides upon engaging the molecular antigens on disease cells.
Additionally, he is developing technologies for scaling up the manufacturing of these therapeutic cells. His post-doctoral training was in T-cell engineering at the MD Anderson Cancer Center with a joint position at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, where he developed approaches for imaging adoptively transferred T cells.
He holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Cornell University.
Kundaje, an assistant professor of genetics and computer science at Stanford University, was chosen as a recipient for his project, “Deep Learning Frameworks for Regulatory Genomics.”
His research focuses on deciphering the molecular and genetic basis of disease by integrative analysis of diverse types of large-scale genomic data.
The Kundaje Lab develops statistical and machine learning methods to decipher functional elements in the human genome, understand their role in gene regulation and cellular function across diverse cell types, and interpret the molecular and phenotypic impact of natural and disease-associated genetic variation.
A graduate of Columbia University earning a doctorate in computer science, Kundaje was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University from 2012 to 2014 and a research scientist at MIT and the Broad Institute from 2012 to 2014 where he led the integrative analysis efforts for two of the largest functional genomics consortia: The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements and The Roadmap Epigenomics Project.
Madhur, an assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University, was named an Innovator Award recipient for her project, “Immunophenotyping of Human Hypertension Using Single Cell Multiplex Mass Cytometry to Identify Novel Therapeutic Targets.”
Madhur received her B.S. in biomedical engineering and biology from Duke University, followed by her medical and doctorate degrees from the University of Virginia. She then returned to Duke University for her internship and residency in internal medicine.
In 2007, she joined the cardiology fellowship program at Emory University where she demonstrated for the first time that the newly discovered cytokine, interleukin 17, plays a critical role in hypertension and vascular dysfunction.
Her lab at Vanderbilt, where she began working in 2012, currently investigates the role of the adaptive immune system and T-cell derived cytokines such as IL-17, IL-21 and interferon gamma on hypertension and the associated renal and vascular dysfunction.
Nair, an assistant professor in the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department at Tufts University, was chosen for his project, “Metabolic Engineering in Humans: Altered Gut Microbes as a Therapeutic Platform.”
He received his B.S. and a doctorate from the University of Illinois. He did his post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical School. Research in the Nair Lab is focused on altering various aspects of microbial physiology not only to engineer them for biomedical, biochemical and bioenergy applications, but to also understand how they interact with each other and their environment.
Perera, a member of the U.C. San Francisco Department of Anatomy, was selected for her project, “Tracking Tumor Evolution through In Vivo Organelle Profiling.”
She earned her B.S. from the University of Melbourne and completed her doctorate at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and the University of Melbourne, Australia. She then trained as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University studying phosphoinositde mediated control of endocytosis, and at Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard Medical School where she uncovered mechanisms of autophagy-lysosome regulation and metabolic reprogramming in pancreatic cancer.
At UCSF, her lab uses in vivo disease models to understand how alterations in organelle composition and function contribute to cancer initiation and progression. Perera is currently the recipient of an American Association for Cancer Research-Pancreatic Cancer Action Network Career Development Award, a Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research Grant, and was selected as a 2015 AACR-NextGen Star.
Satija, a core faculty member at the New York Genome Center and an assistant professor of biology at New York University, was selected for his project, “Learning the Metadata of the Cell with Single Cell Genomics.”
His research is directed towards understanding cellular decision-making using single cell genomics, with a particular focus on the development and function of the mammalian immune system. As a post-doctorate at the Broad Institute, he developed new methods to infer a cell’s spatial localization, subtype and regulatory state based on its gene expression.
Satija earned a B.S. in biology and music from Duke University, and obtained his doctorate in statistics from Oxford University.
Wiita, a researcher with his own lab at the UCSF School of Medicine, was named an award recipient for his project, “In Vivo Monitoring of Oxidative Protein Folding through Time-Resolved Quantitative Mass Spectrometry.”
Wiita completed his undergraduate training in chemistry at Princeton University and a combined medical and doctorate degree at Columbia University with graduate training in single molecule biophysics.
Wiita went on to UCSF to complete residency training in laboratory medicine and then joined the lab of Jim Wells at U.C. SF as a Damon Runyon Postdoctoral Fellow.
He began his own lab in 2014, with a range of interests spanning basic and translational research in hematologic malignancies and genetic disease. The core goal of his group is answering unresolved clinical questions with advanced applications of quantitative mass spectrometry-based proteomics, with a particular focus on mechanisms linking cellular genomic aberrations to phenotypic changes mediated at the protein level.
The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, supported by the NIH’s Common Fund, included 12 Pioneer Awards, 12 Transformative Research awards and 16 Early Independence awards, in addition to the Director’s New Innovator Award.
“The program continues to support high-caliber investigators whose ideas stretch the boundaries of our scientific knowledge,” said NIH director Dr. Francis S. Collins. “We welcome the newest cohort of outstanding scientists to the program and look forward to their valuable contributions.”
The awards span the broad mission of the NIH and include groundbreaking research: engineering immune cells to produce drugs at sites of diseased tissue, developing a sensor to rapidly detect antibiotic resistant bacteria, understanding how certain parasites evade host detection by continually changing their surface proteins and developing implants that run off the electricity generated from the motion of a beating heart.
All told, NIH doled out around $127 million in grants. The 88 honorees represent contributions from the NIH Common Fund, the National Cancer Institute, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institute of Mental Health and the Big Data to Knowledge initiative.
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