NIEHS will administer the grants of three scientists whose innovative research ideas received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The scientists are among 89 winners in a program that supports extraordinarily creative scientists who propose highly innovative research to address major challenges in biomedical science, according to an NIH press release.
“Supporting these three innovative investigators aligns with the NIEHS mission to expand and accelerate scientific contributions that will lead to better understanding of human health and the environment,” said David Balshaw, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Exposure, Response, and Technology Branch. "This award program allows researchers to propose those projects that might lead to dramatic breakthroughs, if successful.”
“These projects represent enabling technologies for many areas that are of interest to NIEHS,” said Daniel Shaughnessy, Ph.D., program officer for the grants. “Although these projects aren’t specifically related to environmental health, they are critical as fundamental tools that could be applied to future work. They are potentially transforming projects that can help answer many questions in environmental health, specifically, and across the spectrum of biomedicine, generally.”
The awards are known as the NIH Director’s New Innovator Awards and the proposed research lives up to the name.
Po-Ru Loh, Ph.D., from Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the Broad Institute, will develop and apply new bioinformatics and statistical methods to a phenomenon known as somatic mosaicism.
Somatic mosaicism refers to differences in genetic sequences and structures across various tissues in a person’s body. Environmental exposures during early development may contribute to mosaicism.
Characterizing the frequency of somatic mosaicism in healthy individuals will be critical to determining clinically relevant mutations in diseases, including cancers.
Prashant Mishra, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, will address a critical need in the study of mitochondrial diseases.
These disorders stem from dysfunctions in mitochondria, which are structures that produce energy for a cell. A key barrier to studying these diseases in animal models is the challenge of introducing mitochondrial DNA mutations found in human diseases into the mitochondria of mouse tissues.
Mishra will engineer a system for uptake of segments of DNA into mouse mitochondria. By combining this approach with gene editing techniques, he hopes to create animal models that mimic the genetics and physiology of human mitochondrial diseases.
Justin Kim, Ph.D., from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, aims to develop new chemical technologies for discovering and modulating protein-protein interactions.
With potential advantages over current methods, his approach has many potential applications, including tracking activity of critical proteins, such as virulence factors in tuberculosis, without interfering with protein function. Kim’s approach may also offer better ways to track the interactions of proteins that carry out key functions in the cell.
These three scientists will join previous award winners who have been successful at such projects as developing new methods for environmental exposure assessment, or creating ways to monitor and track an individual’s capacity to repair DNA damage after an environmental exposure.
Successes from these pilot projects have led to more support from NIEHS to develop and apply them to larger, population-based studies, Shaughnessy said.
NIH issued 10 Pioneer Awards, 58 New Innovator Awards, 10 Transformative Research Awards, and 11 Early Independence Awards for 2018. The three grants NIEHS will administer are all New Innovator Awards. Funding comes from a variety of sources within NIH, primarily the NIH Common Fund, with additional funding provided by other NIH institutes, centers, and offices.
(Sheena Scruggs, Ph.D., is the Digital Outreach Coordinator in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)