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5 from MIT win NIH awards

The grants are designed to promote risky, innovative research with the potential to transform a field of study.

The National Institutes of Health announced on Thursday that it had awarded grants designed to support highly innovative research projects to five MIT faculty members.

Recipients of the NIH grants include Elizabeth Nolan (chemistry), Jacquin Niles (biological engineering), Amy Keating (biology) and Mehmet Fatih Yanik (electrical engineering and computer science). Feng Zhang, who is joining the McGovern Institute and Broad Institute in January, will also receive one of the grants.

Nolan and Niles will receive the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which consists of $1.5 million over five years. Niles, the Pfizer-Laubach Career Development assistant professor of biological engineering, plans to use his grant to pursue the development of new tools to manipulate RNA inside cells. Such tools could allow scientists to learn more about the functional importance of RNA localization and gene expression patterns in many organisms.

Nolan’s grant will fund her research on antimicrobial peptides and zinc to determine their synergistic roles in innate immunity and host physiology. Nolan, an assistant professor of chemistry, believes such work will provide new ways to identify novel biological functions of antimicrobial peptides and could potentially reveal new strategies for antibiotic development.

“NIH is pleased to be supporting early-stage investigators from across the country who are taking considered risks in a wide range of areas in order to accelerate research,” said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “We look forward to the results of their work.”

Keating, Yanik and Zhang will receive NIH Transformative R01 grants, which are designed to support innovative, high-risk and unconventional research projects with the potential to transform a field of science.

Keating, an associate professor of biology, plans to develop new DNA sequencing technologies to study protein-protein interactions. She expects this will lead to new models that speed annotation of protein functions and dramatically advance protein-engineering capabilities.

Yanik, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, will use his grant to develop technologies that can perform large-scale screens to test drugs for neural regeneration Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and other diseases, in living vertebrates. Yanik has also previously received the NIH Director’s New Innovator and the NIH Eureka Awards, also designed to fund innovative research.

Zhang, who will hold a joint appointment in brain and cognitive sciences and biological engineering at MIT, plans to develop new technologies that will uncover the molecular regulators that control neuron differentiation. He will also explore using those molecules to regenerate parts of the nervous system to treat neurodegenerative diseases.

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