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Environmental Factor, November 2015

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Dolinoy receives NIH Transformative Research Award

By Virginia Guidry

Headshot of Dana Dolinoy

"If successfully completed, this project will greatly transform the technologies currently used in epigenomics research and their translation to clinical settings," said Dolinoy. (Photo courtesy of Dana Dolinoy)

NIEHS grantee Dana Dolinoy, Ph.D., has won a 2015 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Transformative Research Award. NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., announced this and other awards from the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program on Oct. 6.

Although most NIH grants require demonstrated feasibility to be funded, the Transformative Research program invests in bold ideas that have not been tested because it would be cost-prohibitive to do so. Without preliminary data, applicants must emphasize innovation and scientific significance to be selected. Dolinoy was one of eight researchers to receive the award this year.

“This program has consistently produced research that revolutionized scientific fields by giving investigators the freedom to take risks and explore potentially groundbreaking concepts,” said Collins. “We look forward to the remarkable advances in biomedical research the 2015 awardees will make.”

Building on innovation

Dolinoy is building on research launched by her 2009 NIEHS Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) award. The highly competitive ONES awards help promising early career scientists establish innovative environmental health research programs. 

Dolinoy is an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, leads its Environmental Epigenetics and Nutrition Laboratory, and is a researcher with the university’s NIEHS-U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Center. In addition, she is an associate director and research engagement program lead for the NIEHS-funded Michigan Lifestage Environmental Exposures and Disease Center.

Developing a new method of gene silencing

Dolinoy hopes to push the frontiers of epigenetic science with a four-year, $2.4 million project called Development of piRNAs for Target-Specific Methylation. There is growing evidence that environmental influences can affect the epigenome, or how genes are expressed, as well the genome or the genes themselves.

Her team, including NIEHS grantee Christopher Faulk, Ph.D., from the University of Minnesota, and Maureen Sartor, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan, will use a class of ribonucleic acid (RNA) called Piwi-interacting RNA (piRNA) to develop technology that can detect and turn off genes that are likely to be defective. This process is called gene silencing.

This method of gene silencing produces permanent changes because it acts during transcription, the first step of gene expression when DNA strands are copied into RNA, rather than during translation, which is the final step that generates proteins.

Working with mice, the researchers will use visually evident outcomes, like changes in fur color or stress behaviors, to show that the method works. If successful, this groundbreaking approach will provide a way to alter the epigenome that is directly applicable to human disease.

(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

High-Risk, High-Reward funding sparks innovations

Current NIEHS grantees who have received High-Risk, High-Reward program funding say that it has changed the direction of their careers.

Donna Spiegelman, Sc.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health, received a 2014 Pioneer Award. She has expanded her research team to include five postdoctoral fellows who are focused on developing methods for integrating research findings into public health policy and practice, known as implementation science. Spiegelman’s team is consulting with public health leaders from around the world about urgent methodological needs, such as identification of optimal, cost-effective cancer screening and implementation of environmental-level changes in the workplace to prevent diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“The Pioneer Award funding has completely changed the makeup of my lab in exciting and sometimes unanticipated ways,” said Oliver Rando, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who also received a 2014 Pioneer Award. “We have gone from being a yeast genomics lab to one heavily invested in mouse genetics, reproductive biology, and early development. It has been unspeakably exciting!”

Manish Arora, Ph.D., of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, was granted a 2014 New Innovator Award. “The support from this grant allows me to study fetal programming by environmental stressors, and how this may impact long term health outcomes,” he said. “Some of the methods I use rely on sophisticated technology not traditionally used in environmental health, and this NIEHS mechanism makes it possible for me to access resources around the globe.”

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