Five researchers receive NIH funding for innovative projects

Five Stanford scientists are among the 86 nationwide who have received awards from the National Institutes of Health’s High-Risk, High-Reward program.

- By Bruce Goldman, Krista Conger, Tracie White, Taylor Kubota

Five Stanford scientists who want to delve deeper into the workings of our tissues, our immune systems, our brains and our guts have received $13.25 million from the National Institutes of Health to fund their innovative projects.

They are among the 86 scientists nationwide to receive Pioneer, New Innovator, Early Independence and Transformative Research awards through the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward program. This year’s awards total $263 million.

Three of the Stanford scientists received Pioneer Awards, one received a New Innovator Award and another received an Early Independence Award. Four of the recipients are from the School of Medicine, while the fifth is from the School of Humanities & Sciences.

“Addressing today’s complex challenges in human health requires taking bold and innovative risks,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “I am thrilled that four of our scientists received recognition for unconventional, exemplary work that will bring us closer to delivering predictive and preventive care to all.”

Pioneer Award

The Pioneer Award provides up to $3.5 million, dispensed over five years, to investigators at all career levels to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical or behavioral science.

Hongjie Dai

Hongjie Dai, PhD, professor of chemistry, plans to use the award to develop infrared-emitting probes through nanoscience and chemical principles to enable deep-tissue, real-time, in-vivo imaging down to cellular resolution.

“Such infrared vision will be employed to address fundamental and practical problems in neuroscience, cancer and cardiovascular diseases,” Dai said.

Dai works at the interface of nanochemistry, materials sciences and biomedical sciences. In recent years, he has led the development of a fluorescence-imaging technique that can produce images of blood vessels in the hind limbs and brains of living mice with unprecedented clarity in the near-infrared regime. This technique works by injecting a dye into the animal’s bloodstream that fluoresces near-infrared light beyond 1,000 nanometers.

Dai plans to use the grant to push the imaging technique further toward the infrared regime, which would result in even clearer images that can be produced from greater depths within tissues. With this enhanced capability, researchers may be able to use this imaging technique in animal models and eventually inhumans, where it could help with basic understanding of diseases and lead to potentially better diagnostics and treatments.

Dai is a member of Stanford Bio-X, the Stanford Biophysics Program, the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, the Stanford Child Health Research Institute, the Stanford Cancer Institute and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

Amit Etkin

Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, researches the neural basis of mental disorders and their treatment. His overarching goal is to transform the diagnosis and treatment of various psychiatric ailments through neurobiology.

He will use his Pioneer Award to further explore what is malfunctioning in the brains of individual patients and then construct interventions using noninvasive tools that stimulate cells deep inside the brain while recording responses with imaging tools such as an electroencephalogram, a test that detects electrical activity in the brain.

In addition to building new physical tools, his goal is to develop more powerful data-analytic approaches to provide more precise information on how individual brains function.

After developing a new diagnostic and interventional platform based on understanding brain dysfunction among individual patients, Etkin plans to conduct clinical trials of these individualized, tailored interventions and then generalize this approach for use across the field of psychiatry for patients with various mental health disorders.

Etkin is also an investigator at the Sierra-Pacific Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. He is a member of Stanford Bio-X and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

Justin Sonnenburg

Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, concentrates on the microbiome, the complex community of microbes that lives in our gut. “A person is not just a collection of human cells,” he said. “Each of us is a walking ecosystem composed of thousands of microbial species in addition to ours.”

Over even relatively short periods of time, a person’s gut microbes can change — for example, due to dietary change; over generations, so can an entire population’s. Recent studies by Sonnenburg and others suggest that the microbiome of industrialized populations, whose diet is rich in highly processed foods and low in fiber, is deficient to some degree, compared with that of traditional hunter-gatherer populations whose fiber-packed diets closely resemble those of our evolutionary ancestors. This deficiency may be predisposing inhabitants of modern urban societies toward certain diseases.

Sonnenburg intends to use the award to analyze diverse populations’ microbiomes in an effort to further define what constitutes a healthy microbiome, and to what extent features of that microbiome that have been lost during modernization may be affecting human health.

He is a member of Stanford Bio-X and of Stanford ChEM-H, and co-director of the medical school’s Center for Human Microbiome Studies.

New Innovator Award

Lingyin Li

Lingyin Li, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry, received a New Innovator Award, which provides up to $1.5 million over five years to fund innovative research by investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and who have not yet received a research project grant or the equivalent from the NIH.

Li focuses on understanding how the innate immune system works and how to harness it to treat diseases such as cancer. She intends to use her award to conduct fundamental mechanistic studies and, in parallel, identify promising anti-cancer drug targets and develop drug leads as novel immunotherapeutics.  

“This money is a lifesaver for my lab to conduct proof-of-concept experiments along these lines,” she said. “Because our research spans basic biochemistry, molecular biology, cancer immunology and drug development, it falls outside the purview of traditional funding mechanisms.”

Recent breakthroughs in treating cancer by harnessing the adaptive immune system have been very effective in a small percentage of patients with limited kinds of cancers. It’s generally believed, Li said, that by increasing innate immune recognition of the remaining cancer types, oncologists might be able to treat those cancers more effectively, as well. But exactly how the innate immune system recognizes cancer is poorly understood. Li’s lab aims to uncover these mechanisms and target them with drugs.

Li is a member of Stanford Bio-X and is a Stanford ChEM-H institute scholar.

Early Independence Award

Kyle Loh

Kyle Loh, PhD, instructor in stem cell biology, received an Early Independence Award, which supports promising young investigators with up to $1.25 million over five years. The awards allow exceptional early career scientists who have recently received their doctoral degree or completed their medical residency to skip traditional postdoctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions.

Loh is working to find ways to grow transplantable human cells or organs in the laboratory from cultured, pluripotent stem cells, eliminating the need for a human donor. He also hopes to devise ways to manipulate the human immune system to remove the need for tissue recipients to undergo long-term immune suppression to prevent transplant rejection.

He plans to use the award to help him establish an independent laboratory and to pursue the goal of making human tissue and organ transplantation safer and more readily available.

Loh is a member of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

The funders of this year’s awards are the NIH Common Fund, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institute of Mental Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

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2023 ISSUE 3

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