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NIH's $144M in Director's Awards Back Innovative 'Omics Studies

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) –The National Institutes of Health today awarded $143.8 million to fund 79 new Director's Awards, including a number of grants for innovative and high-risk studies centering on molecular and genomics research efforts.

The new grants were funded through NIH's Pioneer, New Innovator, and Transformative Research Projects program, which seek to support studies that "challenge the status quo with innovative ideas that have the potential to propel fields forward and speed the translation of research into improved health," NIH said in a statement.

"The NIH Director's Award programs reinvigorate the biomedical work force by providing unique opportunities to conduct research that is neither incremental nor conventional," James Anderson, director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, said in a statement. "The awards are intended to catalyze giant leaps forward for any area of biomedical research, allowing investigators to go in entirely new directions."

The grants are supported by the NIH Common Fund, which was enacted into law by the 2006 NIH Reform Act.

One of this year's winners of the Pioneer funding is Andrew Feinberg, director of the Center for Epigenetics, Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Feinberg, who will receive $2.5 million over five years, said in a statement that the funding "gives me the chance to test a unified theory I've been developing for understanding the relationship between normal development, epigenetics. and evolutionary selection in a changing environment.

"I plan to test the model in ways I never could with regular grant funding, for example, by genetic and epigenetic analysis of honeybees, which show remarkable epigenetic plasticity that is environmentally sensitive, and a relatively small genome compared to other model organisms,” he added.

Assistant Professor Brian Paegel of the Scripps Research Institute won a $1.5 million, five-year Innovator award to develop new molecular tools for protein sequencing.
"We will evolve a suite of custom-tailored molecular tools that will allow us to identify all sites of protein modification, and to correlate those changes with normal cellular function and disease," Paegel said.

Thomas Hartung, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, won a Transformative Research award to fund research to map the molecular pathways of toxicity within cells.

“Mapping the entirety of these pathways—which I’ve termed the ‘Human Toxome’—will be a large-scale effort, perhaps on the order of the Human Genome Project,” Hartung said.

Other Pioneer Award winners include Brenda Bass of the University of Utah, who will study cellular double-stranded RNA as a signal of stress, immunity and aging, and Mehmet Yanik of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who will study ways to generate transplantable neurons by in vivo combinatorial screening of transcription regulator RNAs.

The New Innovator awards include grants to among others: Maria Barna of the University of California, San Francisico to study control of gene expression and embryonic development; Nicolas Buchler of Duke University to study redundancy and interference in genetic networks; Hunter Fraser of Stanford University to conduct functional annotation of human Cis-regulatory genetic variation; Charles Gersbach of Duke University for research into enhanced genetic reprogramming; Steven Kosak of Northwestern University for a study in to self-organization of the human genome; and Sundeep Kalantry of the University of Michigan Medical School for research into epigenetics of transcription regulation.

The Transformative Research Award winners include among others Jan Nolta of the University of California, Davis, to study cell-to-cell transfer of microRNA for tissue repair; and Margaret Ross and Christopher Mason of Weill Medical College of Cornell University to study epigenome interactions in complex neurogenetic disorders.

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