Summary: BRAIN-funded scientists Drs. Jerold Chun, Duygu Kuzum, and Christopher D. Harvey were recipients of 2020 NIH Director’s Awards that will support their original and innovative research.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded 85 grants through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research program that will fund innovative and impactful biomedical or behavioral research by exceptionally creative scientists. This NIH Common Fund program accelerates scientific discovery by supporting inherently risky research proposals that may struggle in the traditional peer-review process, despite their transformative potential. Program awardees are recognized for thinking “outside the box” and pursuing trailblazing ideas. This year the NIH issued 10 NIH Director’s Pioneer awards, 53 NIH Director’s New Innovator awards, nine NIH Director’s Transformative Research awards, and 13 NIH Director’s Early Independence awards. The 85 awards total about $251 million over five years.
One NIH Director’s Pioneer Award was granted to Christopher D. Harvey, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. Established in 2004, the Pioneer Award challenges investigators at all career levels to pursue “pioneering” research approaches with broad impacts beyond their field of research. Dr. Harvey seeks to understand how the mammalian brain performs computations that underlie cognitive functions, such as decision-making and short-term memory. He helped develop novel methods to measure, manipulate, and analyze neural circuits across spatial and temporal scales, including virtual reality, optical imaging, optogenetics, intracellular electrophysiology, molecular sensors, and computational modeling. Dr. Harvey’s award may uncover the causal mechanisms by which cognition emerges from basic neurobiological processes, transforming our understanding of mental health and its disorders. His BRAIN Initiative grant focuses on combining neural population imaging, connectomics, and computational modeling to study the relationship between neural circuit connectivity and function.
Duygu Kuzum, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of California, San Diego, received the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which is granted to extraordinarily creative early career scientists proposing innovative, high-impact projects. Dr. Kuzum leverages innovations in nanoelectronics to develop new neurotechnologies to study brain function. The award will fund her work on developing a new interface for brain organoids, called e-Organoids, that will enable more precise cellular monitoring and better maintenance of a healthy brain microenvironment. This new technology could greatly improve the study of brain development and neural circuits, as well as provide an experimental platform for drug development and testing. Dr. Kuzum is also funded by a BRAIN Initiative grant to develop an ultra high-density neural recording array to ‘virtually’ record from neurons in a three dimensional space, a device that will enable comprehensive mapping of neural circuits and may lead to targeted treatments for neurological disorders.
A NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award was granted to Jerold Chun, M.D., Ph.D., Professor and Senior Vice President of Neuroscience Drug Discovery at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute. This award supports individuals or research teams proposing transformative projects that are inherently risky but can potentially create or overturn existing paradigms. Dr. Chun has made significant contributions to our understanding of the brain and its diseases, including the discovery of somatic genomic mosaicism and gene recombination in the brain and its involvement in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and related dementias (ADRDs). His Transformative Research award is focused on using a newly identified molecular mechanism, somatic gene recombination, to link AD and ADRDs mechanistically, as well as identify novel biomarkers and therapeutics for these devastating disorders. Dr. Chun’s studies will be among the first to examine this mechanism in ADRDs. His collaborative BRAIN Initiative U01 award is aimed at using novel gene-based technologies and computational approaches to characterize every cell type in the human brain, serving as a whole brain reference atlas for studying the molecular basis of brain disorders.