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16 Harvard Affiliates Receive National Institute of Health's Director’s Awards

University Hall is located in Harvard Yard.
University Hall is located in Harvard Yard. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Juliet E. Isselbacher, Crimson Staff Writer

Sixteen Harvard affiliates received Director’s awards from the National Institute of Health under its High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, the NIH announced in a press release Oct. 1.

The program awarded a total of $267 million to 93 “trailblazing” and “out-of-the-box” research proposals, whose uncertain outcomes can disadvantage them in the “traditional peer review process,” according to the NIH site.

The program manages four categories of awards: the Pioneer Award, for those at all career levels; the New Innovator Award, for early career investigators; the Transformative Research Award, for those at the intersection of disciplines; and the Early Independence Award, for junior scientists.

In total, NIH granted 11 Pioneer awards, 60 New Innovator awards, 9 Transformative Research awards, and 13 Early Independence awards this year.

Chemistry and Chemical Biology assistant professor BrianLiau received a New Innovator award for his novel approach to understanding the relationship between the structure and activity of pharmaceutical drugs. Rather than simply altering the structure of the drug, he said his team uses gene editing tools to change the “other side of this equation” — namely, the structure of the drug’s target protein.

“If we could use this type of information to build a better drug, or to target proteins that are thought to be undruggable, I think that would be ultimately what we’re most interested in,” Liau said. “Having this seed money in place is really important for allowing us to take risks and really embark on our most ambitious ideas.”

Harvard Medical School assistant professor Sichen Shao, who also received a New Innovator award, will examine how ribosomes — the cell’s protein-making machinery — maintain quality control.

“We're hoping that by understanding the fundamental mechanisms of how cells recognize aberrant, or incorrect, ribosomes, that we will be able to understand the basis of how the defects of these processes lead to disease,” she said.

Assistant HMS Professor Seth Rakoff-Nahoum said he is curious if — and how — mammals select for beneficial microbes. His proposal to discover these positive selection mechanisms won him a New Innovator award.

“We can potentially learn how to change microbiome, for health, if we learn how we can get certain microbes to stay in there,” he said.

Assistant HMS Professor Brian L. Edlow — another recipient of the New Innovator Award — said he ultimately hopes to speed up consciousness recovery in patients with brain trauma by targeting their “specific conductivity phenotypes.”

“We're going to perform advanced MRIs to map the structural and functional connection of brain networks. And we're going to try to identify patients who are likely to respond to targeted therapies that upregulate dopamine signaling within the brain,” Edlow said.

At the population level, Michael J. Mina, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, received an Early Independence award for his proposal to use antibody-profiling technologies in early epidemic detection.

“We have a technology that allows us to take a drop of somebody's blood, and ultimately be able to get a window into all of the infectious diseases they've ever been exposed to,” Mina said. “Can we actually start screening random blood samples for all these different antibodies, and use this early outbreak detection at the population level?”

“I figured that I’d have a shot at the NIH. But with these kinds of things, you never know,” he added. “I was extremely grateful.”

HMS instructor Courtney Yuen also proposed a project in public health, for which she was granted a New Innovator award. She said her grant will allow her to investigate the epidemiological impact of tuberculosis prevention programs that Partners in Health — a Boston-based nonprofit health care organization — has undertaken in Peru.

Yuen added that she experienced “total confusion” when she was informed of her award.

“Surprise is an understatement,” she said. “It’s like a beauty pageant. Like who knows what they’re judging based on?”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

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Sciences DivisionHarvard Medical SchoolSchool of Public HealthScienceMedicineScience News

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