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Penn Med Investigators: NIH Grants for Transformative Research

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October 19, 2010, Volume 57, No. 08

Weiner Coukos

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine investigators are among the 20 recipients nationwide of an NIH grant that encourages investigators to submit proposals for risky ideas. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will award up to $64 million over five years for this year’s NIH Director’s Transformative Research Projects (T-R01). The T-R01 awards program encourages exploration of exceptionally innovative and original research ideas that have the potential for extraordinary impact, addressing either basic science or clinical challenges. It sidesteps conventional stumbling blocks, such as the need for preliminary data or a restriction on the amount of funds that can be requested that investigators sometimes face when applying for funding for high-risk research.

Dr. David Weiner, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, will receive $3.2 million, in collaboration with the Public Health Service of Canada and biotech firm Inovio Corp., to develop a universal flu vaccine, one that is intended to protect against all strains of flu.

“This funding will allow us to expand novel research concepts that we have been developing to develop a broadly effective seasonal influenza vaccine to protect our population,” said Dr. Weiner. “This funding is an important vote of confidence from the NIH that the concepts that form our application are important and may provide a new approach to this deadly infection.”

Dr. George Coukos, the Celso Ramon Garcia Chair in Reproductive Biology and director of the Ovarian Cancer Research Center, in collaboration with Dr. Chaitanya Divgi, chief, Nuclear Medicine, and Dr. Carl June, director of Translational Research at the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, will receive $3.2 million over five years to develop a personalized immunotherapy that attacks and destroys blood vessels of the targeted tumor. Such an approach has the potential to work for the majority of solid tumors, becoming a powerful and universal tool that can transform cancer therapy.

“This funding will allow us to expand novel approaches to target tumors through immune destruction of their vasculature, using antibodies and engineered T lymphocytes as well as develop molecular imaging to screen patients and follow therapy. If successful, this personalized targeted approach can become a truly powerful universal cancer therapy,” said Dr.  Coukos. “Tumor vasculature can be similar among tumor types and its destruction can lead to dramatic tumor responses. This funding is an important vote of confidence from the NIH on our ideas and the collaborative team we have established at Penn.”

The T-R01 program, supported by the NIH Common Fund (formerly the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research), is an incomparable NIH research opportunity for investigators. Scientists are spurred to rethink the way science is conducted and propose truly daring ideas. The awards can provide up to $25 million in total costs each year for a single project.

“Complex research projects, even exceptionally high impact ones, are tough to get funded without the necessary resources to assemble teams and collect preliminary data. The T-R01 awards provide a way for these high impact projects to be pursued,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins.

Almanac - October 19, 2010, Volume 57, No. 08