Five scientists nab awards for high-risk, high-return research

The NIH has announced that Sean Wu will receive a Pioneer Award; Michael Bassik will receive a New Innovator Award; and David Chan, Michael Angelo and Eric Nelson will receive Early Independence Awards.

Sean Wu

Five scientists at the School of Medicine have received awards totaling $7.75 million to pursue high-risk, high-reward research, the National Institutes of Health announced today.

They are among the 85 recipients of the 2014 Pioneer, New Innovator, Transformative Research and Early Independence awards from the NIH. The awards are designed to encourage scientists to pursue creative research projects with the potential of leading to big improvements in health care.

“I want to extend my congratulations to these scientists and wish them well as they move ahead with their exciting research,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “They epitomize the spirit of innovation that puts Stanford Medicine at the forefront of the biomedical revolution.”

This year, the NIH handed out 10 Pioneer Awards, 50 New Innovator Awards, eight Transformative Research Awards and 17 Early Independence Awards. The total funding came to about $141 million.

“Supporting innovative investigators with the potential to transform scientific fields is a critical element of our mission,” said NIH director Francis Collins, MD, PhD. “This program allows researchers to propose highly creative research projects across a broad range of biomedical and behavioral research areas that involve inherent risk but have the potential to lead to dramatic breakthroughs.”

Pioneer Award

Sean Wu, MD, PhD, assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine, received an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. The five-year, $2.5 million award goes to scientists proposing creative, potentially high-impact research in the biomedical and behavioral sciences.

Wu will use his award for a research project on developing better cures for heart failure. Recent advances in engineering technology have helped create mechanical devices, such as artificial hearts and ventricular assist devices, that help heart function. But long-term challenges remain for these devices because of the possibilities for developing blood clots or of immunological rejection.

Wu’s lab is working on methods of creating synthetic blood vessels, heart valves and ventricular assist devices that are biologically compatible with recipient tissue to minimize complications. These methods include the integration of tissue engineering and stem cell biology using such methods as 3-D printing to generate replacement hybrid tissues.

Wu is also a Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health Faculty Scholar and a member of Stanford’s Child Health Research Institute, Cardiovascular Institute and Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

Michael Bassik

New Innovator Award

Michael Bassik, PhD, assistant professor of genetics, received a New Innovator Award. The award, which provides $1.5 million over five years, is designed to fund innovative research by an investigator who has not yet received an R01 grant, the most common mode of NIH funding.

As a postdoctoral scholar at UC-San Francisco, Bassik developed a novel set of technologies to measure interactions between genes. He used the technologies to study how mammalian cells respond to stress and disease. The approach relies on the use of highly complex libraries of short, hairpin RNA molecules to inhibit the expression of individual or pairs of genes and identify functional networks that control cellular decision-making. Because each gene in the genome is targeted by about 25 RNA molecules, the likelihood of false positives or negatives — a problem in other approaches using inhibitory RNA molecules — is greatly reduced.

The research will help identify new drug targets for diseases such as cancer, and to model the effects of drug combinations under a range of growth and stress conditions. At UCSF, Bassik used the technique to study susceptibility to ricin, a powerful toxin. At Stanford, he will study the biology of the cellular response to stress, as well as to internal pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and dangerous protein aggregates, on a genome-wide scale. The work will clarify how a cell decides to either repair damage or initiate a cascade of events that will eventually lead to the death of the cell. He will also continue to develop genetic screening technology for widespread applications, including the identification of novel drug targets for a variety of conditions. 

Michael Angelo

Early Independence Award

Three medical school researchers received Early Independence Awards, which support promising young investigators with $1.25 million over five years. The awards are meant to allow exceptional early career scientists to more quickly assume independent research positions by eliminating or shortening the traditional postdoctoral training period.

Michael Angelo, MD, PhD, an instructor in pathology, has developed a way to simultaneously detect up to 100 antigens in a conventionally prepared tissue sample through the use of antibodies tagged in a way that can be identified with mass spectrometry. Conventional detection techniques rely on the use of fluorescent or colored tags, and can detect at most four signals in a sample.

With the technique, which Angelo has dubbed multiplex ion beam imaging, or MIBI, he plans to compare normal breast tissue with that of ductal carcinoma in situ and of invasive breast cancers to identify features that could be used to predict which patients with ductal carcinoma in situ need aggressive treatment.

Ductal carcinoma in situ accounts for about 20 percent of the breast cancer cases diagnosed each year. About 25-50 percent of ductal carcinomas in situ will progress to invasive breast cancer, but it’s difficult to identify which patients are most at risk. As a result, many women with this diagnosis undergo aggressive treatment that may not be necessary.

Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson, MD, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in infectious diseases, will use his award to test whether doctors can track fast-moving cholera outbreaks with cell phones.

 While working on Haiti’s 2010 cholera epidemic, Nelson wondered how to keep ahead of the highly contagious diarrheal disease, which sickens and kills many of the world’s poorest children. Patients were infecting others in their households, doctors scrambled to keep up with the epidemic’s changing location, and essential treatment information wasn’t reaching patients fast enough.

Because cell phones are ubiquitous even in impoverished communities, Nelson and his team developed two mobile-phone applications they will test with their award. The Rehydration Calculator provides patient-specific recommendations for fluids, medications and follow-up. The Outbreak Responder helps medical teams triage cases at overloaded hospitals, and can text follow-up medical instructions directly to a patient’s phone. Both tools also gather GPS data to help medical teams track an outbreak.

David Chan

David Chan, MD, PhD, an investigator for the Palo Alto Veterans Institute for Research, which supports research at the VA-Palo Alto, studies productivity variation within the United States health-care system. He uses quantitative tools to help explain why some health-care institutions are able to provide lower-cost, higher-quality care than others. Chan is also an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford and a member of Stanford Health Policy at the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Health information technology has the potential to revolutionize patient care, he said. But research that takes into consideration health-care providers’ cognitive limitations is needed to determine the best way to deliver this information to them.

By learning more about what motivates physician behavior, Chan hopes to develop information technology systems that deliver the optimal amount of information to physicians in the most useful way for patient care.

The award will help him build a team to pursue this research. In particular, he is interested in researching the use of electronic reminders to physicians to help them provide timely and high-quality care to patients. 

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