Five Columbia Scientists Receive NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Grants
The NIH has awarded High-Risk, High-Reward grants to five researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons who are pursuing highly innovative research with the potential for broad impact.
The NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Research program catalyzes scientific discovery by supporting research proposals that, due to their inherent risk, may struggle in the traditional peer-review process despite their transformative potential. Program applicants are encouraged to think “outside the box” and to pursue trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH’s mission to advance knowledge and enhance health.
This year the program issued 13 Early Independence awards and 53 New Innovator awards, along with 19 awards in two other categories.
The five VP&S awardees are:
Dmitriy Aronov, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience, has been awarded an NIH Director's New Innovator Award for “Using a Specialized Behavior to Study the Neural Mechanisms of Episodic Memory.”
In his proposed project, Aronov aims to acquire a neural circuit-level understanding of how memories of everyday events, known as “episodic” memories, are formed and recalled in the brain. This function relies on the hippocampal formation, a brain region whose disruption results in a variety of memory disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Aronov uses the highly specialized and complex memory behavior of food-caching birds to understand the relationship between memories and neural activity in the hippocampal formation.
Chi-Min Ho (Mimi), PhD, assistant professor of microbiology & immunology, has been awarded an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award for “Molecular Basis of Effector Protein Export in the Malaria Parasite Plasmodium falciparum.” Ho's research will build upon her previous studies in the structural microbiology of the malaria parasite and combine cutting-edge techniques in malaria parasite gene editing, cryoelectron microscopy and in situ cryoelectron tomography to overcome longstanding barriers to structural study in malaria parasites.
The project’s findings will elucidate the molecular mechanisms underlying effector protein export and host-cell remodeling by malaria parasites and inform structure-guided design of novel anti-malarial therapies.
Samuel Sternberg, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry & molecular biophysics, has been awarded an NIH Director's New Innovator Award for “Leveraging Programmable Integrases for Human Genome Engineering.”
Sternberg's project plans to leverage newly discovered programmable integrases for human genome engineering, in which CRISPR RNA-guided complexes direct the insertion of genetic payloads at user-defined target sites.
By developing methods for high-fidelity, orthogonal, and multiplexed DNA integration, he hopes to gain new insights into genome organization and the role of complex genome rearrangements in disease and cancer.
Xuebing Wu, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and of systems biology, has been awarded an NIH Director's New Innovator Award for “Genome-Wide Studies of the Noncoding Functions and Mechanisms of Human mRNAs.”
The ability to interpret the functional impact of genetic variants is limited by an incomplete understanding of how genes are regulated by non-protein-coding information in the genome.
In his project, Wu will develop new high-throughput approaches to systematically dissect a new layer of non-coding genetic information to accelerate the discovery of new drug targets and therapeutic tools.
Kelley Yan, MD, PhD, the Dorothy L. & Daniel H. Silberberg Assistant Professor of Medicine and Genetics & Development, has been awarded an NIH Director's New Innovator Award for “Directing Cell Fate Along the Intestinal Enteroendocrine Lineage.”
Yan’s lab uses multidisciplinary approaches to study the behavior of intestinal stem cells with the ultimate goal of manipulating them for therapeutic benefit.
In this study, Yan will focus on intestinal enteroendocrine cells that produce and secrete hormones involved in regulating body weight and energy expenditure. She will study how these cells develop and their involvement in human metabolic diseases. Through understanding these cells, she aims to harness their potential to treat human diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
“The breadth of innovative science put forth by the 2020 cohort of early career and seasoned investigators is impressive and inspiring," said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD. “I am confident that their work will propel biomedical and behavioral research and lead to improvements in human health.”
Three researchers who earned their doctoral degrees at Columbia—Christine Constantinople, PhD, of New York University; Annegret L. Falkner, PhD, of Princeton University, and Lu Wei, PhD, of California Institute of Technology—also received awards, along with one former Columbia postdoctoral researcher, Andrew Miri, PhD, of Northwestern University.