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NIH Awards Grants to Eight Harvard Med Researchers for ‘High Risk, High Reward’ Research

Six Harvard Medical School professors received the National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award.
Six Harvard Medical School professors received the National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award. By Joey Huang
By Mariya R. Meleganich, Saketh Sundar, and Annabel M. Yu, Contributing Writers

Eight researchers affiliated with Harvard Medical School were awarded the National Institutes of Health’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program grants, the agency announced last month.

Six HMS professors — Felix Dietlein, Lucas Farnung, Marco Jost, Michael B. Miller, Humsa S. Venkatesh, and Xin Zhou — received the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which supports “unusually innovative” research from early-career investigators. Two HMS instructors, Emily A. Ferenczi, and Jonathan Tsai, received the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, allowing them to skip traditional postdoctoral training and pursue independent research.

The High-Risk, High Reward grants provide crucial support for innovative, high-risk research endeavors that often face obstacles in the standard NIH peer-review process.

Farnung, an assistant professor of cell biology at HMS, said that receiving the award was a “really fantastic recognition of, really, a decade of work.”

“With the funding, of course, we’re now super excited to push the envelope even further to gain even more fundamental insight into the processes that we’re studying," he said.

He added that the fact that eight recipients were from Harvard “really shows what a great research environment we are here and what a fantastic community Harvard is.”

Jost, an assistant professor of microbiology at HMS who focuses on “the chemical underpinnings of host-microbiome interactions,” said that receiving the grant provides “stability for a while.”

“This particular program really gives us an opportunity to take risks, and take on big ideas that might be difficult to fund otherwise,” he said. “What this lets us do is lets us not worry about funding for the lab for a while, or at least not worry as much and pursue what we think are important problems in biomedical sciences.”

Zhou, an assistant professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at HMS whose lab focuses on making a new protein degrader, said her lab is looking to acquire the knowledge and “cutting edge technologies,” which she hopes will help “cure disease or treat human disorders.”

Farnung, who researches the molecular processes behind epigenetics, said his research areas have “not really been understood at all,” but that it holds promise for better understanding diseases like leukemia.

“We can start to develop drugs against these cancers that are actually affected by mutations in these pathways,” Farnung said.

The professors said their research areas have potential for large-scale progress in the coming years.

“We’re really at an unprecedented point with how rapidly people are developing new tools and finding ways to apply those tools to understand how the body works,” Miller said.

“It’s become clear that there’s really exciting work to be done,” Jost said. “I think the field is really primed for major breakthroughs over the next decade or so.”

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