Stanford pathologists awarded several NIH awards

Efforts to design a hepatitis C vaccine, understand the genetic causes of rare diseases, map genetic regulatory elements in organ systems and understand coronavirus immune responses garner over $40 million.

- By Krista Conger

Clockwise from top left, Steven Foung, Stephen Montgomery, Scott Boyd and Ansuman Satpathy have received more than $40 million from the National Institutes of Health.

Over the past several months, four Stanford Medicine researchers in pathology have received four large awards from the National Institutes of Health to investigate immune responses to the coronavirus and hepatitis C virus, the genetic causes of rare diseases, and the regulatory elements in DNA that control gene expression in organs and tissues at the level of a single cell.

The researchers are associate professor of pathology Scott Boyd, MD, PhD; professor of pathology Steven Foung, MD; associate professor of pathology and of genetics Stephen Montgomery, PhD; and assistant professor of pathology Ansuman Satpathy, MD, PhD.

“Each of these researchers is a star in their academic field,” said Thomas Montine, MD, PhD, a professor and chair of pathology. “These faculty members have a tremendous diversity of interests and of expertise.”

Boyd was awarded over $10 million from the National Cancer Institute to launch the Stanford SARS-CoV-2 Serological Sciences Center of Excellence to better understand the immune response to the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers with the center will study the B cell and T cell responses to coronavirus infection in the blood and mucous membranes and compare these responses with those generated by vaccination to determine the factors responsible for durable immunity to the virus. They aim to rapidly translate findings into advances in clinical laboratory testing and new therapies for people with COVID-19.

Foung received nearly $12 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop a vaccine for the hepatitis C virus, which affects about 3 million people in the United States. Some infected people generate immune responses that can eliminate the virus, but others are chronically infected. As successful clearance of the virus involves both B cell and T cell responses, Foung and his team hope to design a vaccine that elicits a similar response to prevent persistent infections. To do so, they’ll identify structures on the outside of the virus likely to stimulate the production of broadly neutralizing antibodies. They will also design antigens to help T cells recognize and respond to the most infectious subtypes of the virus. With preclinical trials in animals, they will evaluate the immune responses to emerging candidate vaccines. Then, they plan to move on to early-stage clinical trials in people.

Montgomery received $14 million from the National Human Genome Research Institute, or NHGRI, to launch the Stanford site of the NHGRI’s GREGoR consortium (Genomic Research to Elucidate the Genetics of Rare disease). Researchers with the center will use advanced techniques in computational biology and genomics — including gene-expression profiling, the patterning of chemical tags called methyl groups on DNA and the large-scale study of small molecules called metabolites within a cell — to identify the genetic causes of rare diseases. Center researchers will study 400 people with rare diseases of unknown cause using sequencing and “omics”-based techniques not yet widely available to better understand the proteins, genes and molecules — and the interactions among them — within the patients’ cells. They may also use induced pluripotent stem cells and animal models to explore the genetic cause of a patient’s disease. Identifying the genetic underpinnings of rare disorders can help clinicians screen an affected person’s family members and highlight possible therapeutic targets.

Satpathy was awarded $13 million from the NHGRI to launch the Stanford Impact of Genomic Variation on Function Center. The center is part of a nationwide IGVF consortium dedicated to studying how an individual’s genetic variations affect their health and their likelihood of developing certain diseases. Satpathy’s award is one of four awarded to Stanford faculty members; the others are detailed here.

“Historically, pathology departments were where translational research occurred,” Montine said of the breadth of the research funded by the new grants. “Anything that’s relevant to human disease is fair game. The thread that ties these centers together is their focus on finding ways to advance basic research findings into the clinic.”

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