News Release

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.

Pioneer Award

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


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 $9.9 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 $546 million awarded in the 2021 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 47,000 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 2021, Penn Medicine provided more than $619 million to benefit our community.

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