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Prestigious NIH Director’s Pioneer and New Innovator Awards
September 30, 2008 , Volume 55, No. 6


Dr. James Eberwine, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Professor of Pharmacology and co-director of the Penn Genome Frontiers Institute, has been awarded the National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award, which will provide $2.5 million over the next five years. Dr. Aaron Gitler, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology, has been awarded the NIH New Innovator Award, which will provide $1.5 million over the same time frame.

Dr. Eberwine investigates how single neurons work in the context of surrounding cells and how this relates to the emerging field of RNA-based therapeutics. Dr. Gitler studies yeast cells to define mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases and screen for new treatment targets.

“These programs are central elements of NIH efforts to encourage and fund especially novel investigator-initiated research, even if it might carry a greater-than-usual degree of risk of not succeeding,” said NIH Director Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, on the aim of the Pioneer and Innovator awards. “The awards also reflect our goal of supporting more investigators in the early stages of their careers.”

“The Pioneer award will enable us to try many different—some risky—approaches to understanding how a cell’s individual biochemical characteristics, or phenotype, develops and is regulated,” said Dr. Eberwine. “One can think of this pursuit as a complex maze with many false passages and the funding will enable us to move much more rapidly through this scientific maze.”

“The Innovator Award will allow me to take risks and expand my research program in new directions without worrying about funding for a while,” said Dr. Gitler. “It will be great to be able to focus all of my attention on research and continue to do the work I am most excited about.”

Dr. Eberwine proposes that by transferring the catalogue of RNA molecules from one cell to another in a way that makes the recipient cells’ survival dependent on the donor RNA, the recipient cell’s phenotype will mimic the donor cell phenotype. Having the ability to transfer phenotypes between cells would provide important new insights into mechanisms controlling cell differentiation and function. Preliminary data show that donor cell RNA populations carry “memory functions” in which donor RNA can induce long-term changes in the genome of host cells to effectively match the inner workings of the donor cell. The ability to selectively and rationally create cellular phenotypes may yield novel individualized therapeutics.

Dr. Gitler studies the mechanisms that cause proteins to misfold and aggregate by identifying genes and cellular pathways that are affected by misfolded human disease proteins. By harnessing baker’s yeast as a model system to study the mechanisms underpinning protein-misfolding diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, his lab aims to perform high-throughput, genome-wide screens to elucidate the basic cellular mechanisms of toxicity. These will provide the lab with an opportunity to observe and understand protein folding and misfolding in real time as it occurs in a living cell. The innovative aspect of his approach is not just that they are working in yeast, but that they are using this system as a tool to discover new drug targets.

For both programs, NIH selects recipients through special application and evaluation processes. Distinguished outside experts identify the most highly competitive applicants. The Advisory Committee to the Director, NIH, performs the second level of review and Dr. Zerhouni makes final decisions based on the outside evaluations and programmatic considerations.



Almanac - September 30, 2008, Volume 55, No. 6