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Harvard Researchers Receive NIH Funding for Biomedical, Behavioral, and Social Sciences Research

Five of the nine Harvard researchers who will receive NIH grants for their 'high-risk, high-reward' projects are Harvard Medical School faculty members.
Five of the nine Harvard researchers who will receive NIH grants for their 'high-risk, high-reward' projects are Harvard Medical School faculty members. By Pei Chao Zhuo
By Natalie K Bandura and Austin H. Wang, Contributing Writers

Nine Harvard researchers are set to receive a total of more than $200 million in grants over the next five years through a National Institutes of Health program that funds “high-risk, high-reward” research.

The researchers — Adam Granger, Rachel Buckley, Benjamin P. Kleinstiver, Kara McKinley, Ellis Monk, Carlos Ponce, Silvi Rouskin, Dabattama Rai Sen and Bo Xia — are among 103 scientists who were selected by the program nationwide.

The grants fund “exceptionally creative scientists pursuing highly innovative research with the potential for broad impact in biomedical, behavioral, or social sciences,” according to the NIH’s website.

The NIH grant program distributes four different categories of awards — the Pioneer Award, the Transformative Research Award, the Early Independence Award, and the New Innovator Awards.

The Harvard researchers selected to receive the money study a diverse range of disciplines, ranging from sociology to stem cells and neuroscience.

Five of the recipients — Kleinstiver, Ponce, Buckley, Rouskin, and Sen — serve on the Harvard Medical School faculty.

Kleinstiver, an assistant professor at HMS, works on genome-editing technology, including CRISPR, and the development of new gene-editing tools.

“The specific focus of the grant itself was to find a way to scalably engineer CRISPR Cas enzymes,” he said.

Ponce, an assistant professor in HMS’s Department of Neurobiology, studies visual neuroscience, using machine learning to visually represent the primate brain. He said he plans to use the grant funding to obtain new technologies, such as better-functioning electrodes, optogenetics, and high-density probes.

Buckley, an assistant professor of neurobiology at HMS, researches preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. She plans to use the funding for a project that seeks to discover why women are two-thirds more likely to have dementia than men.

Her research suggests that sex differences could come from the tau protein, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and is produced in higher quantities in individuals who experience menopause earlier. She plans to focus her research on the structure and function of the X chromosome.

“Right now, we focus a lot on hormones, and we focus a lot on menopause, and I think part of that is to do with how easily we can measure some of these things,” Buckley said. “But looking at the chromosome is really hard. If we can find a way to do this and do it well in life, I think that could be really impactful.”

Rouskin, an assistant professor at HMS, studies RNA structure in gene regulation and disease. Sen, a faculty member at HMS, studies immune dysfunction in viral infections and tumors.

McKinley, an assistant professor at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, examines the regenerative capabilities of the uterus, which gets destroyed and rebuilt in approximately monthly cycles during menstruation.

“Historically, women’s health has been under-resourced — specifically women’s health that doesn’t pertain to pregnancy,” McKinley said. “I’ve been really excited to see that they are willing to invest in this kind of work.”

McKinley hopes to establish a population of African Spiny Mice — one of the few organisms that can menstruate — in order to design and run experiments to gain insights into diseases such as cancers and endometriosis.

Monk, a professor in the Sociology Department who studies race and ethnicity in the United States, was the lone social science faculty member who received funding through the program.

He plans to examine how social differences contribute to health disparities by creating a nationwide longitudinal survey. He also plans to work with clinicians to uncover why pulse oximeters are less accurate for patients with darker skin.

Xia and Granger both conduct research at the Broad Institute, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT that specializes in biomedical research.

Xia — a principal investigator at the Broad Institute who studies how genome organization affects development, disease, and evolution — said the grant is a “career-turning point” that will allow him to continue exploring the molecular side of primitive human and ape evolution.

Granger, a principal investigator at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, focuses on changes that happen in the connectivity between different types of neurons in the brain in psychiatric disorders. His research uses viral infection tools, with a specific focus on rabies, to measure gene expression and map neuronal connections.

Granger said the NIH grant money will enable him to hire more people and take more risks in his research.

“Because this is a high-risk, high-reward grant mechanism, I can sort of shoot for the stars there and give it a shot and really work for something that’s more transformative — even if the chance of success is really low,” Granger said.

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