Compiled by BioPhotonics staff
BETHESDA, Md. – The US National Institutes of Health recently awarded $143.8 million in grants to speed up the translation of research projects into improved health, and several of the recognized projects rely on biophotonics technologies or techniques.
These grants were awarded under three programs supported by the NIH Common Fund: the NIH Director’s Pioneer, New Innovator and Transformative Research Projects Awards. This year, approximately $10.4 million will go to Pioneer awardees, $117.5 million to New Innovators and $15.9 million to Transformative Research Projects.
These programs “reinvigorate the biomedical workforce by providing unique opportunities to conduct research that is neither incremental nor conventional,” said Dr. James M. Anderson, director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, who guides the Common Fund’s High-Risk Research program.
The NIH Director’s Award Program so far has funded 406 high-risk research awards: 111 Pioneer Awards since 2004, 216 New Innovator Awards since 2007 and 79 Transformative Research Projects Awards since 2009. These numbers include this year’s 13 Pioneer Awards, 49 New Innovator Awards and 17 Transformative Research Projects Awards.
Pioneer Award recipient Jean Bennett of the University of Pennsylvania’s Scheie Eye Institute of the Perelman School of Medicine and her research team were granted $4 million for the next five years to use gene therapy to treat inherited forms of blindness, which can be caused by mutations in any of hundreds of different genes.
The researchers plan to resensitize the blind eye using optogenetic techniques in which light-sensitive molecules are delivered to any remaining retinal cells. Preclinical studies in blind animals have demonstrated that this strategy is effective, and a new clinical study would test the safety and efficacy of this approach in blind patients.
Project results could improve the quality of life for millions of individuals and also could pave the way for development of novel gene therapy approaches to the treatment of other sensory diseases.
New Innovator awards went to several photonics-focused researchers. Arjun Raj of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science will receive $1.5 million over five years. His research involves the development and application of new microscopic imaging tools to reveal how the physical organization of the genetic code determines the manner in which the cell reads the code itself. The development of these methods will establish a “nuclear GPS” that should permit researchers to directly visualize genetic organization in single cells. Understanding this organization will be important for discovering how defects in translating the genetic code contribute to diseases such as cancer.
Other New Innovators named this year include Bo Huang of the University of California, San Francisco, who plans to use superresolution microscopy to study macromolecular complex architecture in situ. Huang and colleagues hope that their research will provide insights into problems in structural and neuron cell biology, and generate tools for other life sciences fields as well.
Long Cai of California Institute of Technology is exploring systems biology in single cells using superresolution bar coding. The IR-LAMP project, led by Julie C. Canman of Columbia University, will use optogenetic technology to spatially manipulate the function of proteins in vivo.
Hongrui Jiang of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, another New Innovator, is developing a contact lens to correct presbyopia by changing its focal length to offer far-ranging and close-up vision in a single lens.
Andrea M. Kasko of the University of California, Los Angeles, will use phototunable biomaterials to engineer complex 3-D cell microenvironments, and Haining Zhong of Oregon Health and Science University will examine the architecture of brain tissue synapses at nanometer resolution.
Transformative Research Projects
A $7 million five-year Transformative Research Project Award was given to a team of investigators from the Perelman School of Medicine and from Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology, both in Atlanta. The researchers include Sunil Singhal, director of the Thoracic Surgery Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. If a tumor is more visible and easier to distinguish from surrounding tissues, surgeons are more likely to be able to remove it completely. At present, a significant number of patients who undergo surgery leave the operating room without total tumor removal.
To address the problem, the researchers developed fluorescent nanoparticle probes that target cancer cells. Their main goals are to help surgeons distinguish tumor boundaries, identify diseased lymph nodes and determine whether a tumor has been completely removed. The grant-funded project includes plans for tests of the nanoparticles in animal models and a clinical trial for patients with lung cancer. The proposed technologies could be broadly applicable to many types of solid tumors.
Other Transformative Research Projects awardees include Adela Ben-Yakar and Jonathan T. Pierce-Shimomura of the University of Texas at Austin, who will use high-speed optofluidics to study the entire nervous system as it relates to aging and disease.
“The awards are intended to catalyze giant leaps forward for any area of biomedical research, allowing investigators to go in entirely new directions,” Anderson said.