NIH awards grants to support highly innovative biomedical research
San Diego, Calif., October 6, 2015 -- Two engineering professors from the University of California, San Diego have received $5.9 million in combined funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) High-Risk, High-Reward Research program supported by the NIH Common Fund. The two professors, Sheng Zhong in the Department of Bioengineering and Darren Lipomi in the Department of Nanoengineering, are among five professors from UC San Diego to receive an award from the program in 2015.
The UC San Diego award winners include one Pioneer Award winner and four New Innovator Award winners.
The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, part of the NIH Common Fund, encourages scientists to pursue highly innovative approaches to major challenges and gaps in biomedical research. Awards support exceptional investigators pursuing bold, high-impact research projects that span the broad mission of the NIH.
“This program has consistently produced research that revolutionized scientific fields by giving investigators the freedom to take risks and explore potentially groundbreaking concepts,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D, Ph.D. “We look forward to the remarkable advances in biomedical research the 2015 awardees will make.”
Descriptions of the grants received by researchers from the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering are detailed below:
Associate Professor, Department of Bioengineering
Sheng Zhong, an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering, received a $3.76 million NIH Director’s Pioneer Award to develop new technologies to identify and understand molecular interactions in human cells. In particular, Zhong’s research will focus on mapping RNA-RNA interactions and RNA-DNA interactions. The proposed work is aimed at advancing a new approach toward drug development called “RNA therapeutics.” In contrast to traditional approaches of drug development, which utilize synthetic small molecules to shut down disease-related proteins in the body, RNA therapeutics utilizes synthesized RNA molecules to interrupt the production of — and thus inhibit — disease-related proteins.
Zhong’s goal is to use his Pioneer Award to develop technologies that will simplify the process of designing and testing RNA molecules as drug candidates. He also plans to apply the new technologies to test whether RNA interactions contribute to the earliest step of regulating gene expression, which decides the cell fate of mammalian cells. The work aims to address a fundamental question in biology by shedding light on the physical principles behind the earliest cell differentiation event during embryonic development.
Assistant Professor, Department of NanoEngineering
Faculty Member, Center for Wearable Sensors
Darren Lipomi, an assistant professor in the Department of NanoEngineering, received a $2.2 million NIH Director’s New Innovator Award for his proposal to develop a new class of wearable and implantable organic electronic materials that have properties resembling those of human tissue. Different from other research on “electronic skin,” Lipomi’s research is aimed at creating organic electronic materials that are extremely elastic, biodegradable and capable of self-repair, similar to biological tissues. The work will focus on how to synthesize and modify electronics at the molecular level so that they can have some of the same properties as human skin and tissue.
“We’re proposing a platform technology that would offer a more seamless integration of synthetic electronic systems with the human body than what is currently available,” said Lipomi.
“The idea behind this technology is to take a semiconducting material, like a silicon wafer, and improve it by incorporating properties inspired by biological tissue. This research will significantly re-design electronic materials by making electronic plastics that are not only capable of conducting charge, but can respond well to biological stimuli and be comfortably worn inside and outside the body.”
Long-term applications of this technology include an artificial retina, electronic-skin-like grafts that can restore the sense of touch to prosthetic limbs, and an integrated device capable of continuously monitoring pressure within the skull to determine any associated traumatic brain injury.
Other UC San Diego professors who received a New Innovator Award are: Eric Bennett (assistant professor, Division of Biological Sciences), Brenda Bloodgood (assistant professor, Division of Biological Sciences) and Kamil Godula (assistant professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry).
More information on current awardees and the NIH Common Fund High Risk-High Reward Research Program can be found at: http://commonfund.nih.gov/highrisk.