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Five from MIT win NIH grants

Grants support biomedical research that will ‘challenge the status quo’ with risk-taking, innovative ideas.
The National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday that it is awarding 79 grants totaling $143.8 million to innovative scientists across the country, including five MIT researchers. The grants bolster research that will potentially drive the biomedical field forward, and speed therapies from the bench top to the clinic. 

NIH grant recipients from MIT include Mehmet Fatih Yanik ’99, MEng ’00, associate professor of electrical engineering; Timothy Lu ’03, MEng ’03, PhD ’08, assistant professor of electrical engineering; Erez Lieberman Aiden PhD ’10, a principal investigator at the Broad Institute; Alan Jasanoff, associate professor of biological engineering; and Sebastian Seung, professor of computational neuroscience.

The grant money comes from the NIH Common Fund, enacted into law by Congress in 2006, which specifically supports innovative and risk-taking research programs. The awards are divided into three categories: the NIH Director’s Pioneer, New Innovator and Transformative Research Projects awards.

“The NIH Director’s Award programs reinvigorate the biomedical workforce by providing unique opportunities to conduct research that is neither incremental nor conventional,” said James M. Anderson, director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, which guides the Common Fund’s High-Risk Research program. “The awards are intended to catalyze giant leaps forward for any area of biomedical research, allowing investigators to go in entirely new directions.”

Yanik received the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, which supports exceptionally creative scientists working to solve major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. He plans to make patient-specific human tissues that can be used in the clinic for regenerative therapy of neuronal diseases, disorders, aging and injury. Yanik's group is developing a breakthrough technology to reprogram human stem cells to specific transplantable tissues without the need for genetic modification.

Lu and Lieberman Aiden will receive the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which supports promising new investigators with highly innovative projects. Lu will use the grant to continue his work in synthetic biology and nanotechnology, creating platforms for studying, manipulating and eventually treating amyloid-associated diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease; and for his work on bacterial biofilms.

Lieberman Aiden plans to develop DNA-sequencing-based tools to probe the spatial arrangement of cell components. The goal, he says, is to develop a better understanding of some of the mechanical processes that underlie cell biology.

Jasanoff and Seung each received the NIH Transformative Research Projects Award, which specifically supports high-risk, unconventional research that has the potential to profoundly impact the biomedical field.

Jasanoff and his colleagues will use the award to create a new kind of microscopic device for measuring electrical signaling processes in the brain. The devices will be tiny electrical circuits, designed to stick to individual brain cells, where they will convert physiological activity of those cells into tiny magnetic fields detectable by noninvasive imaging methods such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magneto-encephalography. The new approach will expand neuroscientists' ability to study neural function in spatial and temporal detail, and Jasanoff hopes the micro-devices will eventually be adapted for use in humans. Jasanoff has previously received the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. 

Seung and his team will analyze electron microscopic images in order to identify connectomes, or “wiring diagrams,” between neurons in the retina. Seung is developing computational methods to trace the connections between individual neurons, an effort that will help researchers understand how information is processed in the brain, and how brain activity may change over time.

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