PHILADELPHIA— Seven University of Pennsylvania researchers, including five from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, have been selected to receive highly competitive National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s awards from the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program. The Common Fund supports biomedical research that will be conducted over a five-year period and that requires trans-NIH collaboration to succeed, while the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program supports innovative research proposals that might not prove successful in the conventional peer-review process despite their potential to advance medicine.

The 2018 Penn recipients, among 97 awardees nationally, are:

New Innovator Awards

Rajan Jain, MD, an assistant professor of Medicine and Cell and Developmental Biology and member of the Cardiovascular Institute (CVI) and Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IRM), will be provided $2.4 million to advance understanding how cell identity is established and maintained. This generous support will help his group decode the rules that instruct genome organization and cellular identity, ultimately revealing implications for human disease. Grant ID: DP2-HL147123. 

Matthew Kayser, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, will receive $2.4 million in funding for his research, which focuses on the function and regulation of sleep during early periods of brain development. His work has shown that specific circuits control sleep early in life and that disrupting sleep during critical developmental periods can lead to neural-circuit malformation and abnormal behaviors in adulthood. Grant ID: DP2-NS111996

Michael Mitchell, PhD, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Bioengineering, will also receive $2.4 million to further his lab’s work employing tools and concepts from cellular engineering, biomaterials science, and drug delivery to understand and therapeutically target complex biological barriers in the body. His lab applies their research findings — and the drug delivery technologies developed — to a range of human health applications, including cancer metastasis, immunotherapy, and gene editing. Among his research interests, Mitchell designs drug delivery technologies to engineer cells in the bone marrow and blood vessels as a way of gaining control over how and why cancer disseminates throughout the body, as well as to engineer immune cells for immunotherapy and vaccination. Grant ID: DP2-TR002776

Transformative Research Awards

Nicola J. Mason, BVetMed, PhD, an associate professor of Medicine and Pathobiology at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, and who holds Immunology and Cell and Molecular Biology graduate-group affiliations at the Perelman School of Medicine, will receive $727,277 for the first year of a five-year grant (shared with co-investigator Aimee S. Payne, MD, PhD). Dr. Mason’s work focuses on the translation of basic scientific immunological principles that govern the generation of immune responses into therapeutically-relevant hypotheses and immunotherapies that can be tested for safety and efficacy in canine patients. Funding is commensurate to project needs. Mason’s work with Payne aims to expand the scope of translational immunotherapy beyond comparative immuno-oncology to encompass companion animals with spontaneous autoimmunity and infectious disease. Grant ID: R01-AR075337, Co-Investigator: Aimee S. Payne, MD, PhD

Aimee S. Payne, MD, PhD, the Albert M. Kligman Associate Professor of Dermatology, is recognized for her work on organ-specific autoimmune diseases and her aim to address shortfalls in current methods for treating autoimmunity, which indiscriminately suppress the immune system and can potentially lead to deadly infections and secondary cancers. Payne’s goal is to develop precision therapies that only eliminate disease-causing autoimmune cells while preserving immune cells that protect patients from infection. Her lab has engineered chimeric autoantibody receptor (CAAR) T cells to treat pemphigus vulgaris, a potentially fatal autoimmune disorder in which autoantibodies cause blistering of the skin and mucous membranes. Through this award, Payne seeks to develop cellular immunotherapies to treat dogs with similar autoimmune disorders. Grant ID: R01-AR075337, Co-Investigator: Nicola Mason, BVetMed, PhD

Early Independence Awards

Mark A. Sellmyer, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of Radiology with a secondary appointment in Biochemistry and Biophysics, will receive $393,349 for the first year of a five-year grant for his work on developing small molecule tools and converting molecular-imaging technologies into clinical use in order to address problems in such areas as cancer biology, immunology, and infectious disease. Most recently, he developed new positron emission tomography (PET) probes to detect bacterial infections in patients. Sellmyer was also awarded the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award for Medical Scientists. Grant ID: DP5-OD26386

Anna Wexler PhD, a fellow in Advanced Biomedical Ethics in the department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, will receive $402,499 in the first year of a five-year grant to examine the ethical, legal, and social implications of emerging neurotechnology, such as do-it-yourself and direct-to-consumer electrical brain stimulation. She also explores how do-it-yourself movements, direct-to-consumer health products, and citizen-science initiatives are disrupting traditional models of medicine and science. Grant ID: DP5-OD26420


Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.9 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $496 million awarded in the 2020 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center—which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report—Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 44,000 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2020, Penn Medicine provided more than $563 million to benefit our community.

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