National Institutes of Health Honors Two Penn Researchers With 2010 New Innovator Awards

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | jposey@upenn.edu | 215-898-6460October 5, 2010

PHILADELPHIA –- University of Pennsylvania researchers Ritesh Agarwal and Patrick Seale have been honored with the New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health, providing each with $1.5 million to support their research for five years.

Agarwal is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.  Seale is an assistant professor in the School of Medicine.

The awards are given by the NIH to stimulate highly innovative research that has the potential for significant impact and to 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.

Agarwal’s project, “Optoelectronic Nanowire Probes for Investigation of Intracellular Processes,” will seek 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, he 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.

“It is a great honor and a wonderful opportunity for us to assemble novel nanoscale optoelectronic probes to study intracellular activity,” Agarwal said. “A unique aspect of this award is that it does not require any preliminary data and thus allows people like me with limited experience in biology or medicine to expand our expertise and to attack very challenging problems.  This award will have a transformational effect on my research program at Penn.”

Seale’s project, “Molecular Regulation of Brown Adipose Cell Fate in Somitic Stem Cells,” addresses obesity, 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 adults raising the possibility that variations in brown fat function may influence propensity for weight gain.

The goal of the project is to identify and study the precursor cells for brown fat in developing and adult tissues.  The 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,” Seale said. “Because of this grant, we are able to explore new research avenues and incorporate high-risk, discovery-oriented experiments into our program.”

"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 Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “We look forward to the results of their work."

More information on the New Innovator Award is at http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/newinnovator.

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