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NIH Awards Two Penn Researchers 2010 New Innovator Award

October 12, 2010, Volume 57, No. 07

Seale Agarwal

Dr. Patrick Seale, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Dr. Ritesh Agarwal, assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, have received the New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), providing $1.5 million to each over five years to support their research.

The awards are given by the NIH to address two important goals: stimulate highly innovative research that has the potential for significant impact and support promising early stage investigators who propose bold new approaches that have the potential to produce a major impact on a broad area of biomedical or behavioral research.

Dr. Seale’s project, “Molecular Regulation of Brown Adipose Cell Fate in Somitic Stem Cells,” addresses obesity and being overweight, a major risk factor for a multitude of health problems, including: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and certain cancers. Obesity is caused by a defect in energy balance when energy from food intake chronically exceeds energy expenditure. Brown fat tissue is highly adapted to expend chemical energy as heat and can therefore counteract obesity. Significant amounts of this tissue have been recently identified in adult humans, raising the possibility that variations in brown fat function may influence propensity for weight gain. The goal of this project is to identify and study the precursor cells for brown fat in developing and adult tissues. These studies will uncover mechanisms that control brown adipose cell fate and suggest new therapeutic targets for obesity and metabolic disease.

“This award provides us with a tremendous opportunity to make important new discoveries related to obesity and metabolic disease,” said Dr. Seale. “Because of this grant, we are able to explore new research avenues and incorporate high-risk, discovery-oriented experiments into our program.”

Dr. Agarwal’s project, “Optoelectronic Nanowire Probes for Investigation of Intracellular Processes,” seeks to assemble nanowire devices with optical and electrical functions to probe cell and intracellular dynamics with unprecedented resolution. By combining nanowire waveguides, fluorophores, quantum dots, lasers, light emitting diodes and photodetectors, his team hopes to create a new generation of biological imaging: probes that can target subcellular regions, measuring for the first time, in real time, chemical reactions, cellular signaling and cellular reactions due to complex phenomena like a locally delivered drug. “The ability to visualize in vitro intra- and inter-cellular processes in real time will aid the design of new drugs for a large number of diseases that impact public health,” said Dr. Agarwal.

“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 Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the NIH. “We look forward to the results of their work.”

Almanac - October 12, 2010, Volume 57, No. 07