PHILADELPHIA – For the second year in a row, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected seven researchers from Penn to receive its prestigious Director’s Awards, part of the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program. The initiative, designed to fuel research endeavors that are more opened-ended and have a potentially broader effect on scientific understanding compared to more traditional research, presents awards to scientists in four categories to support research over a five-year period.
While a total of 93 High-Risk, High-Reward awards are granted this year, each category of award has at least one Penn Medicine recipient.
James Eberwine, PhD, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Professor of Pharmacology, will receive up to $3.5 million to investigate RNA structure within single cells in cortex and hippocampus tissue in the brains of mice and humans. Traditional isolation of RNA for research purposes changes its makeup, and therefore, the intracellular forms of RNA are not well understood. By uniquely analyzing natural structural changes of RNA and also how RNA structure can be manipulated, Eberwine’s work may influence the development of future therapies. This is Eberwine’s second Pioneer Award, having also won in 2008; he is one of only five people to be awarded the grant more than once. Grant ID: DP1 AA028409
Early Independence Award
Sydney Shaffer, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and of Bioengineering, is awarded up to $1,250,000. Building on her previous work in melanoma, her research will focus on rare resistant or invasive cancer cells and using new ways to illuminate RNA signatures in those cells. This research has the potential to lead to novel treatments of these highly-dangerous cancer cells. Grant ID: DP5 OD028144
New Innovator Award
Maayan Levy, PhD, an assistant professor of Microbiology, will receive $2.4 million total over five years to study new modes of communication between the intestinal microbiome and host immunity. Her lab continues to analyze the communication network between the microbiome and its host and discovered that metabolites act as messengers. This forms the basis for a large number of innovative therapeutic approaches for numerous multi-factorial human diseases. Grant ID: DP2AG06751101
Ophir Shalem, PhD, an assistant professor of Genetics, will also receive $2.4 million in total over five years for his research, which focuses on the development of functional genomics tools that are based on scalable gene tagging for the direct measurement and perturbation of endogenous proteins. His lab focuses on the development of state of the art functional genomics and gene editing tools and applications for studying a range of disorders including neurodegenerative diseases. Grant ID: DP2 GM137416
The third Penn Medicine recipient in this category is Christoph A. Thaiss, PhD, an assistant professor of Microbiology and a member of the Institute for Immunology (IFI) and the Institute for Diabetes, Obesity & Metabolism (IDOM). The award, which also comes with funding totaling $2.4 million over five years, will enable Thaiss and his lab to study the role of amyloid proteins in intestinal host-microbiome interactions. The Thaiss lab studies how environmental signals are integrated into host physiology and how these signals contribute to the development of human disease. Grant ID: DP2 AG06749201
Transformative Research Award
Together, Rajan Jain, MD, an assistant professor of Medicine and Cell and Developmental Biology and member of the Cardiovascular Institute (CVI) and the Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IRM), and Arjun Raj, PhD, a professor of Bioengineering, will receive over $5 million. These funds will allow the Jain lab and the Raj lab to work together to develop new approaches to elucidate factors that control cell identity and how they regulate transdifferentiation approaches. Ultimately, this will allow researchers to more efficiently transform one type of cell into another. Last year, Jain received a New Innovator Award to advance understanding of how 3D genome organization regulates organ development and homeostasis. Grant ID: R01 GM137425
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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 $494 million awarded in the 2019 fiscal year.
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