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NIH Awards Nine Harvard Scientists ‘High-Risk, High-Reward’ Grants

Harvard Medical School's Gordon Hall sits across the HMS quadrangle.
Harvard Medical School's Gordon Hall sits across the HMS quadrangle. By Justin C. Wong
By Ashley R. Masci and Isabel G. Skomro, Contributing Writers

The National Institutes of Health awarded nine Harvard scientists grants as part of its High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program.

The nine scientists are among a class of the 85 who the NIH selected to receive $251 million to further their research in accordance with the program’s mission — to support innovation in the biomedical, behavioral, and social sciences.

Christopher D. Harvey, an associate professor of neurobiology, was picked as one of 10 winners of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, given to researchers with an outstanding record of innovation.

Harvey’s work focuses on how mammals’ brains execute the computations — including decision-making, short-term memory, and spatial navigation — that underlie cognitive functions.

“It's quite a bit of money that allows us to kind of pursue all the ideas that we want to go after, and allows us some flexibility to pursue, kind of, you know, some of the riskier or crazier ideas that we’re thinking about,” Harvey said.

The program also awarded Harvard Medical School assistant professors Andrew C. Kruse and Debora S. Marks — who study Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology and Systems Biology, respectively — a Transformative Research Award. The grant aims to foster multidisciplinary approaches to alter current methodology and scientific models. Kruse and Marks’s work uses machine and technology-based learning to develop monoclonal antibodies from yeast.

Marks said she hopes to make the results of her work widely available to labs.

“This is about trying to find the language of life, the language of proteins such that we can design libraries that can hugely accelerate this process and make it available to any lab, and to any research, and to people who want to develop therapeutics,” she said. “We’re learning the language of life and biology.”

The NIH also selected several Harvard scientists to receive New Innovator Awards.

Molecular and Cellular Biology assistant professor Doeke R. Hekstra and Medical School assistant professors Eunjung Lee and Miles A. Miller were among 53 winners chosen in recognition of their ability to apply inventive strategies to biomedical challenges.

Hekstra researches proteins and their physical and mechanical characteristics. Miller is examining how molecular structures control and regulate information processing and decision-making in multicellular systems, a key component of systems biology. Lee is conducting research on the significance of transposons, elements of DNA which may create immune response molecules in ageing and diseased human tissues.

“My proposal actually raises a new perspective that’s saying transposon deactivation in ageing and human tissue might be a new source of immunogenic molecules,” Lee said. “That’s actually the theme, and to investigate that aspect of transposon biology, I really need to utilize genome sequencing, and single cell sequencing, and all those cutting edge technologies.”

Waring Trible, a fellow in the Center for Systems Biology; Hyunghoon Cho, a fellow at the Broad Institute; and Sarah J. Hill ’05, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at the Medical School are among 13 winners of the Early Independence Awards, which the NIH grants to scientists who recently received doctoral degrees or completed their medical residencies and moved directly into independent research positions.

“I was very excited, and very humbled. It's a big honor. And it’s also a lot of responsibility,” Trible said.

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