New Innovator Award Program Highlights

Brain Sensor Grid Can Your Genes Feel The Beat?

Perception of rhythmic cues contributes to our understanding of music, conversation, and movement throughout our daily lives. While some features of rhythm perception and production vary in pattern across cultures, many researchers have proposed that musical beat perception and synchronization evolved in humans to support communication and social group formation. Some have predicted that impairments in beat synchronization may also be related to speech-language disorders that are associated with conversational rhythms. While several theories on these associations exist, the connection between rhythmic comprehension and genetics remained largely unexplored. 

To understand this link, researchers from the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward New Innovator Award initiative conducted Genome-Wide Association Studies, or GWAS, in over 600,000 consenting volunteers who submitted their genetic sample to 23andMe for testing and answered a “yes” response to a questionnaire asking if they had the ability to keep a beat in time with a given musical rhythm. The researchers also conducted validation studies, asking a smaller pool of research participants to recognize similar rhythmic patterns and to tap along with the beat of music. Based on this information, the researchers identified 69 different locations in the human genome that account for self-reported beat synchronization. These genes were more likely to be found in areas associated with central nervous system function, including brain tissue, and early brain development. Additionally, genes associated with beat synchronicity overlapped with genetic patterns of other traits, including those involved in biological rhythms, such as walking and breathing, as well as genes active in areas of the brain associated with motor skills and timing. 

When taken together, these study results suggest a connection between the ability to understand and follow along with rhythmic cues and genes active in the brain that begin during fetal development. This study may serve as an important step forward in understanding the connection of our genetic code to musicality and body movement that can serve as a building block for future studies aimed at comprehending the complex interactions of genes and rhythm cues in our day-to-day life. 

Are you curious about the ethics of using personal genome information in basic research studies? Read more about the way in which this research was conducted here, as well as a commentary from the authors on the ethical and social impacts of the study of genetics and musicality here

Resource: Genome-wide association study of musical beat synchronization demonstrates high polygenicity. Niarchou M, Gustavson DE, Sathirapongsasuti JF, Anglada-Tort M, Eising E, Bell E, McArthur E, Straub p, 23andMe Research Team, McAuley JD, Capra JA, Ullén F, Creanza N, Mosing MA, Hinds DA, Davis LK, Jacoby N, Gordon RL. Nature Human Behaviour. 2022 Jun 16. DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01359-x. PMID: 35710621

Brain Sensor Grid Rapid and Accurate Virus Testing at Your Fingertips

Availability of widespread rapid testing for COVID-19 has advanced since the start of the pandemic, resulting in faster infection diagnoses and improvements in public health. However, the current testing methods still display challenges due to limitations in sensitivity, the need for complex sample storage, and preparation prior to testing for more sensitive techniques. 

NIH Common Fund High-Risk, High-Reward (HRHR) program researchers at Johns Hopkins University have developed a new technology that targets these challenges by increasing the accuracy and speed of virus testing through a device that can test patient samples without any need for preparation. Unlike currently used testing methods, this innovative technology is “label-free,” meaning no additional modifications to the sample is required to detect virus. 

The sensor is based on the combination of multiple sensing technologies and data analysis methods that, when combined, can detect small amounts of virus in saliva samples through vibrations. The data processing algorithms can also differentiate between different types of virus, as well as detect the quantity of the virus present in the sample. This can ultimately provide clinicians and patients with a clearer picture of infection that can help in diagnosing and treating the individual.  

Initial testing of the sensor has shown the sensitivity to be nearly equivalent to the currently used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique and as convenient as a home rapid antigen test. Furthering its innovation, the sensor can be placed on any type of surface, including building entrances, masks, and wearable devices. The combination of sensitivity, ease of use, and location adaptability, has the potential to place fast and accurate testing truly at our fingertips. 

This research was supported by a National Science Foundation’s Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program and the National Institute of Health Director’s New Innovator Awards for Dr. Ishan Barman and Dr. David Gracias 

Resource: Label-Free Spectroscopic SARS-CoV-2 Detection on Versatile Nanoimprinted Substrates. Paria D, Sang Kwok K, Raj P, Zheng P, Gracias DH, Barman I. Nano Letter. 2022 Mar 29. doi: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.1c04722. PMID: 35348344.

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         Johns Hopkins University

Image Credit: Kam Sang Kwok and Aishwarya Pantula/Johns Hopkins University
Image Caption: The small flexible sensor shown above can be placed on a multitude of surfaces for fast sensitive testing

Brain Sensor Grid New Sensor Grids Record Human Brain Signals in Record-breaking Resolution

A team of engineers, neurosurgeons and medical researchers has published data from both humans and rats demonstrating that new arrays of brain sensors can record electrical signals directly from the surface of the human brain in record-breaking detail. The new brain sensors feature densely packed grids of either 1,024 or 2,048 embedded electrocorticography (ECoG) sensors.

High-resolution recordings of electrical signals from the surface of the brain could improve neurosurgeons' ability to remove brain tumors and treat epilepsy, and could open up new possibilities for medium- and longer- term brain-computer interfaces. The paper was published by the journal Science Translational Medicine on January 19, 2022.

These thin, pliable grids of ECoG sensors, if approved for clinical use, would offer neurosurgeons brain-signal information directly from the surface of the brain's cortex in 100 times higher resolution than what is available today. Access to this highly detailed perspective on which specific areas of the tissue at the brain’s surface, or cerebral cortex, are active, and when, could provide better guidance for planning surgeries to remove brain tumors and surgically treat drug-resistant epilepsy. Longer term, the team is working on wireless versions of these high resolution ECoG grids that could be used for up to 30 days of brain monitoring for people with intractable epilepsy.

The technology also holds potential for permanent implantation to improve the quality of life of people who live with paralysis or other neurodegenerative diseases that can be treated with electrical stimulation such as in Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, and the neurological movement disorder called dystonia.

The new sensors contain platinum nano-rods. While using platinum-based sensors for recording electrical activity from neurons in the brain is not new, using nanoscale platinum rods is a new approach being developed by this team. The nano-rod shape offers more sensing surface area than flat platinum sensors, which helps to make the sensors more sensitive.

The project is led by electrical engineering professor Shadi Dayeh at the University of California San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. The team of engineers, neurosurgeons and medical researchers hails from UC San Diego; Massachusetts General Hospital; and Oregon Health & Science University.

The team is working on a range of initiatives in parallel to advance these grids so that they are eligible for review for approval for short-, medium- and longer-term use. For example, the team, led by UC San Diego electrical engineering professor Shadi Dayeh, was awarded a $12.25 Million NIH Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative grant focused on developing the sensing system to the point that the next step will be a clinical trial for people with treatment-resistant epilepsy. This grant also funds efforts to make the system wireless, which would be important for creating implantable grids for medium- and longer- term use.

Dayeh developed the sensors primarily with the support of a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (1DP2EB029757-01).

Additional National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for this work includes support through the following awards: The NIH Brain Initiative R01NS123655-01, UG3NS123723-01 and NIDA R01-DA050159.

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Source: Condensed summary of a press release by Daniel Kane, UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

Image Credit: David Baillot / UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

Let’s Talk About Shapes: Viral Characteristics That Make It Successful In Human Cell Infection

Piecing Together the Requirements to Tackle Antiviral Drug Resistance and Future Pandemics
Viruses are a major threat to human health and given that they spread through social interactions have costly consequences. In the United States during the 2019 – 2020 influenza season, an average of 38.2 million cases, 404,646 hospitalizations, and 21,909 influenza related deaths occurred1. The economic burden of influenza in the United States has been estimated at $5.8 billion annually2. Non-influenza-related viruses affecting humans such as measles virus, Ebola virus and chickenpox virus have been similarly devastating and have resulted in deadly epidemics in history and continue to be a major threat against humanity3. Researchers have historically investigated the characteristics that make a virus able to successfully infect a human cell. However, determination of the role of viral shape in cell infection has been challenging due to the shape only being partially genetically encoded and so not amenable to typical genetic experiments.
Now, a team lead by New Innovator Awardee Dr. Tijana Ivanovic at Brandies University has uncovered that the shape of the virus particles determines the efficiency of the virus attaching and fusing to the human cell when viral activity is compromised. Viral particles that are filamentous have an advantage over viral particles that are spherical when there are neutralizing pressures from the human immune response on the viral cell entry machinery. Filamentous particles have been shown to directly resist cell-entry pressures and are less sensitive to inhibition activities by the immune system antibodies. They are able to fuse to the human cell membrane more efficiently at high neutralizing pressure and longer filaments are better able to resist extreme inactivation efforts by human antibodies. Although this is a promising discovery, further studies are needed to determine additional individual specific requirements that are also necessary for successful viral infection. However, this discovery and further studies may potentially lead to the development of antiviral treatments that directly target long filamentous virus particles to possibly curb pandemics and overcome antiviral drug resistance.

The shape of pleomorphic virions determines resistance to cell-entry pressure
Li T, Li Z, Deans EE, Mittler E, Liu M, Chandran K, and Ivanovic T. Nature Microbiology. 2021 Mar 18. doi: 10.1038/s41564-021-00877-0. PMID: 33737748

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States — 2019–2020 Influenza Season. Retrieved from:
2. Ozawa S., et al. Modeling the economic burden of adult vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States. Health Aff. (Millwood) 35, 2124–2132 (2016).
3. Muñoz LS, Garcia MA, Gordon-Lipkin E, Parra B, Pardo CA. Emerging Viral Infections and Their Impact on the Global Burden of Neurological Disease. Semin Neurol. 2018 Apr;38(2):163-175. doi: 10.1055/s-0038-1647247. Epub 2018 May 23. PMID: 29791942

Slide-seq: A Novel Method to Map Tissue Cells

kidney histology In the same way the world's continents are made up of countries that each contain multiple cities, your body's organs are made up of tissues which each contain multiple cell types. Tissue functions are influenced by the different cell types and their organization, gene activity patterns, and the molecular pathways they use to communicate with other cells. In recent years, detailed explorations of tissue function have been limited by an inability to map where and how individual cells function within the tissue. To address these limitations, Early Independence Awardee, Dr. Fei Chen, and New Innovator Awardee, Dr. Evan Macosko, teamed up to develop Slide-seq, a new method for mapping detailed data on which genes are turned on or off within individual cells.

The technology works like this: First, a surface is packed with DNA-barcoded beads. Next, fresh-frozen tissue is transferred on top of this surface and any RNA released is captured by the beads. RNA is used to measure gene expression which genes are active in a cell. Scientists can use patterns of gene expression to tell the difference between cell types. Finally, by combining gene expression data with position information from the individual beads, the scientists created a high-resolution map of the spatial position of different cell types. The technique was validated with multiple tissues including those from the brain, liver, and kidney. The team confirmed that RNA expression measurements using Slide-seq agreed with other widely-used methods. To demonstrate its potential, the researchers used Slide-seq to map previously unknown gene expression patterns in an area of the mouse brain that had not been detected using existing technologies. They also used their novel technique to quantify different cellular responses in a mouse model of traumatic brain injury (TBI) over hours, days, and weeks. Their results suggested that TBIs can affect neural activity in a large area surrounding the injury for days or weeks post trauma.

Slide-seq technology may offer a better understanding of how different cell types organize themselves in space. This could allow us to map cells that are important after TBIs and other medically important events. However, more work is required to determine the significance of this organizational structure and how it changes over time. As part of this work, the NIH Common Fund's Human Biomolecular Atlas Program (HuBMAP) is developing an open, global research platform to map cells in healthy human bodies. Dr. Macosko joined the HuBMAP team in September of 2019 and will use Slide-seq to help create maps of the cell types and tissues that make up our bodies' "cities" and "countries."

ReferenceSlide-seq: A Scalable Technology for Measuring Genome-Wide Expression at High Spatial Resolution.. Rodriques SG, Stickels RR, Goeva A, Martin CA, Murray E, Vanderburg CR, Welch J, Chen LM, Chen F, & Macosko EZ. Science. 2019 Mar 29;363(6434):1463-1467

How Much Does It Hurt (Exactly)?

Nanosensors Contacting CellsLeft untreated, pain can have major negative effects on sufferers’ quality of life. However, quantifying pain is complicated because it is a subjective feeling that can reflect both actual and perceived biological damage. Dr. Alexander Niculescu, a NIH New Innovator Awardee, is working on an approach to objectively evaluate pain perception using a simple blood draw. He and his team set out to determine if biological indicators of pain exist—pain biomarkers. More specifically, he was interested in those detectable in the blood. The researchers focused their efforts on a cohort of psychiatric patients; as a group, psychiatric patients are at higher risk for pain disorders and often have an increased perception of pain.

During each of approximately six visits, Dr. Niculescu and his team asked participants to rate their pain as high or low. They also drew the participants’ blood and measured the activity levels of different genes. By associating differences in gene activity levels with high-pain or low-pain over time, the researchers identified 65 potential pain biomarkers. After prioritizing and validating potential biomarkers, the team analyzed their ability to predict a high pain state in a second cohort of psychiatric patients. They found (when separated by gender and diagnosis) individual biomarkers were better predictors than the full 65 biomarker panel. The researchers suggest that for the approach to be most useful, biomarkers may need to be personalized for each individual to accurately determine their pain level..

While this study exclusively focused on participants with psychiatric disorders, the researchers hope that its findings could be generalizable to other populations. Although we are still a long way from being able to accurately quantify pain, this approach demonstrates the potential of precision medicine for its diagnosis and treatment.

ReferenceTowards precision medicine for pain: diagnostic biomarkers and repurposed drugs. Niculescu AB, Le-Niculescu H, Levey DF, Roseberry K, Soe KC, Rogers J, Khan F, Jones T, Judd S, McCormick MA, Wessel AR, Williams A, Kurian SM, & White FA. Mol Psychiatry. 2019 Apr;24(4):501-522.

Rejection Detection (of Transplants)

Nanosensors Contacting CellsSuccessful organ transplants are important to the quality of life of patients with end-stage organ failure. Early detection of acute transplant rejection can increase a patient’s chances for survival, by allowing clinicians to intervene and use anti-rejection drugs to save the graft or organ. Unfortunately, current detection approaches, including tissue biopsies, can involve additional surgery, result in sampling errors, or can lead to additional health issues and disease.

The early stages of organ or graft rejection (when the host’s immune cells attack the new transplant) is linked to increases in some biomolecules. One that has been correlated with this stage is Granzyme B, which acts a signal for cell death. New Innovator Awardee Dr. Gabriel Kwong has developed a groundbreaking nanosensor that detects the early transplant rejection marker, Granzyme B, and activates a fluorescent indicator that is passed in the patient’s urine—no additional surgery required.

Dr. Kwong and his team injected the nanosensor into rodent skin graft models and found the sensors could successfully detect early graft failure. Although rigorous testing is needed before it is ready for use in humans, future developments of this technology could allow for better, and less invasive, detection of transplantation failures to give doctors a versatile tool to manage patient health.

ReferenceNon-invasive early detection of acute transplant rejection via nanosensors of granzyme B activity(note: full text may require institutional access). Mac, Q. D., Matthews, D. V., Kahla, J. A., Stoffers, C. M., Delmas, O. M., Holt, A.H., Adams, B. A., & Kwong, G. A. Nature biomedical engineering (2019).

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Pinpointing Plenty of Proteins - in a Single Cell

Picture of the Protein Structure of an EnzymeThe cell is the fundamental unit of life, but until recently, it was very difficult for researchers to study the activities of an individual cell. Even cells that have the same job in our bodies can differ from each other in what genes are turned on or off and in what proteins they produce, and those differences can be important for understanding human health and disease. Recent advances made it possible to investigate a handful of proteins from a single cell, but Dr. Nikolai Slavov, a 2016 recipient of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, just changed the game. His approach now allows researchers to study 100 to 1000 times more proteins in individual cells.

Dr. Slavov and his team used a common research technique called mass spectrometry, which breaks down proteins and analyzes their building blocks, but they took steps to enhance the technique. Before mass spectrometry, Slavov’s team isolated individual mammalian cells, careful not to lose much of the cells’ protein content. Next, the team inventively applied another approach, tagging protein building blocks from the individual cells. The chemical tags were recognizable during mass spectrometry data analysis and were traced back to the individual cells submitted for analysis.

Combining these two steps in an innovative manner greatly increased the number of proteins identified and traced to a particular cell. Putting it into practice, Dr. Slavov showed that he could create protein profiles for individual stem cells allowed to develop randomly into many different cell types making many different proteins. Dr. Slavov’s method helps researchers move to a more concrete understanding of individual cells and the organisms they make up. In the future, this understanding may help patients by identifying biological markers for precision medicine and regeneration therapies.

Reference: SCoPE-MS: mass-spectrometry of single mammalian cells quantifies proteome heterogeneity during cell differentiation. Budnik, B., Levy, E., Harmange, G., & Slavov, N. Genome biology. 2018 Oct 22; 19(1): 161

Firing Neurons With Nanowire and Light

Nerve CellsThe brain is responsible for regulating life sustaining functions, taking in sensory information, controlling movement, and creating thought. All of this is accomplished by electrical impulses running through elaborate networks of neurons in a way that is poorly understood. Now, a team of researchers led by Bozhi Tian (2016) has created microscopic nanowires that can be inserted into neurons and hit with light to produce electrical impulses and provides a way for researchers to better understand how electrical signals work in the brain. The nanowires are made with two types of silicon that create a small electrical current when hit by light, and the electrochemical reactions are catalyzed by gold diffused onto the wires. Both silicon and gold are biologically compatible materials, making them safe for implantation, and would naturally degrade in a couple of months. The nanowires themselves are so small that hundreds of them could sit side by side on the edge of a sheet of paper. When the nanowire is illuminated with light, the voltage difference between the inside and outside of the cell is slightly reduced and lowers the barrier for the neuron to fire an electrical signal to another neighboring neuron. Tian and his team tested the nanowires on lab-grown rat neurons and were able to successfully trigger the neurons to fire using light. Tian next plans to test the nanowires in animals. The nanowires promise a way to better understand electrical signaling in the brain by studying electrical impulses in individual nerve cells and may lead to possible therapeutics for nerve pain, Parkinson’s disease, or psychiatric disorders.

Reference: Photoelectrochemical Modulation of Neuronal Activity With Free-Standing Coaxial Silicon Nanowires. Parameswaran R, Carvalho-de-Souza JL, Jiang Y, Burke MJ, Zimmerman JF, Koehler K, Phillips AW, Yi J, Adams EJ, Bezanilla F, Tian B. Nature Nanotechnology. 2018 Feb 19. doi: 10.1038/s41565-017-0041-7.

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Anti-Inflammatory Antibodies Engineered to Treat Autoimmune Disease

Digital illustration of antibodiesRobert Anthony’s (2014 New Innovator) laboratory engineered glycosylation enzymes that can transform rogue antibodies causing autoimmune disease into beneficial anti-inflammatory antibodies by modifying sugars attached to them. Treating an autoimmune disease often relies on reducing the inflammation caused from the immune system’s antibodies attacking the body’s own healthy cells, and, paradoxically, high doses of antibodies collected from healthy donors and administered intravenously is often used for treatment (called high-dose intravenous immunoglobin). But treatment requires large amounts of the antibodies, which are in short supply and expensive, and takes a long time to administer. Researchers observed that the anti-inflammatory effect of high-dose intravenous immunoglobin is attributed to a small portion of antibodies with sialic acid (a complex carbohydrate called a glycan) attached to the antibody. Sialic acid is usually attached to antibody proteins while they are being assembled in cells, but Anthony wondered if enzymes capable of adding chemical groups like glycans could attach sialic acid to antibodies outside the initial assembly process. Because sialic acid requires another glycan called galactose to attach to antibodies, Anthony’s team engineered two glycosylation enzymes to activate the attachment of sialic acid to other antibodies– one fused with an enzyme for sialic acid and one for galactose. When the enzyme antibodies were administered together in a mouse model of rheumatoid arthritis, the anti-inflammatory effects were similar to treatments with high-dose intravenous immunoglobin, and there was a reduction in kidney damage in a mouse model of lupus. The treatment appears to be safe, is specific to the site of inflammation, and does not affect other antibodies or glycans in circulation. The enzyme antibodies are effective at a 400-fold lower dose than high-dose intravenous immunoglobin and greatly reduces treatment time. Anthony’s team is now exploring treatment dosage, frequency, and administration method of the antibody enzymes as a therapy for autoimmune disease.

Reference: Engineered Sialylation of Pathogenic Antibodies In Vivo Attenuates Autoimmune Disease. Pagan JD, Kitaoka M, Anthony RM. Cell. 2017 Dec 11;pii: S0092-8674(17)31431-9.

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From Toy to Science Tool

PaperfugeCentrifuges, a device that spins tubes of liquid at high speeds, are vital pieces of laboratory equipment but are often too expensive or impractical in many rural clinics around the world. Prakash Manu, a 2015 New Innovator, realized the need for an inexpensive centrifuge that didn’t require electricity and looked for a solution. He tested kitchen tools and children’s toys as centrifuge replacements and eventually settled on the whirligig, a child’s toy featuring a disc that is spun on string. Using the whirligig, Prakash created a hand-powered centrifuge capable of spinning at speeds of 125,000 rpm, fast enough to separate blood into its individual components in 1.5 minutes. Using only paper, twine, and plastic, the centrifuge costs 20 cents, is easily assembled, and is durable. Field trials on the “paperfuge” are currently underway and could be used in the diagnosis of diseases such as malaria and African sleeping sickness. The “paperfuge” is another step in Prakash’s efforts to make scientific tools more accessible to people around the world.

Vaccine Candidate for Group A Streptococcus

StreptococcusRommie Amaro, a 2010 New Innovator, discovered a protein that may lead to a vaccine for the bacteria group A Streptococcus, a leading cause of worldwide morbidity and mortality and responsible for infections and diseases such as pharyngitis, rheumatic heart disease, and necrotizing fasciitis (“flesh-eating” disease). No vaccines currently exist against the bacteria, and efforts are hampered by the bacteria’s high variation of surface proteins, which activate the body’s immune response and are typically targeted for vaccine development. With over 200 distinct variations in surface proteins in group A Streptococcus, developing a vaccine able to recognize them all and confer universal immunity is unlikely. However, the discovery of a protein that interacts with the surface proteins offers hope. Researchers identified a protein called human C4b-binding protein (C4BP) that is brought to the surface of the bacteria to help block the host’s immune response. When tested against surface proteins, C4BP could interact with approximately 90% of group A Streptococcus strains. Analysis of surface protein structures found hidden patterns that allow C4BP to bind to them. The interaction between C4BP and surface proteins can be exploited for developing treatments, and the common sequence in the surface proteins is a valuable target for vaccine development against the bacteria.

Conserved Patterns Hidden within Group A Streptococcus M Protein Hypervariability Recognize Human C4b-Binding Protein. Buffalo CZ et al. Nat Microbiol. 2016 Sept 5; 1(11):16155.

Visualizing RNA using Expansion Microscopy

Cell structureRNA molecules act as messengers, carrying copies of genetic instructions from the DNA throughout the cell and are crucial for protein synthesis and proper cell functioning. Arjun Raj (a 2011 New Innovator) and Edward Boyden (a 2007 New Innovator, 2012 and 2013 Transformative Researcher, and 2013 Pioneer) describe a new technique that can image RNA in cells and tissue by using “expansion microscopy,” a method where samples are physically enlarged with an expandable polymer, making high resolution imaging possible with common laboratory microscopes. Knowing the distribution of RNA inside cells will enable scientists to better understand how cells control gene expression and could aid study of diseases caused by the improper movement of RNA.

An Alternative Way to Smell

MouseSandeep Datta, a 2010 New Innovator, discovered alternative odor receptors in mice that upends previous conceptions about smell and reveals a much more complex system than previously believed. A single receptor family was thought to detect a single odor, but Datta found a group of neurons surrounding the olfactory bulb have an alternative mechanism for odor detection. These “necklace” neurons respond to odors with instinctive responses, such as pheromones and seeds and nuts, and demonstrate smell can be mediated by multiple types of receptors.

Defects in Neurons Reveal Clues to Autism

AutismAlysson Muotri, a 2009 New Innovator, reprogrammed stem cells to create neurons from autistic individuals who exhibited faster growing brains early on in life. The stem cell-derived neurons made fewer connections compared to cells from healthy individuals. Communication between the neurons was restored by adding IGF-1, a drug currently being tested for clinical treatment of autism. The use of stem cell reprogramming opens the way to modeling early stages of disease and to evaluate potential therapeutic treatments.

Altered Proliferation and Networks in Neural Cells Derived from Idiopathic Autistic Individualss. Marchetto MC et al. Mol Psychiatry. 2016 Jul 5. doi: 10.1038/mp.2016.95.

When Molecular Machinery Collide

DNA ReplicationJue Wang, a 2008 New Innovator, discovered what happens when a cell makes copies of its DNA at the same time it is translating its DNA into mRNA and the molecular machinery collide. A specific gene in bacteria was engineered so either the process of replication and transcription proceeded in the same DNA strand direction or so the processes would collide head-on. Wang found that when replication and transcription collided head-on, the mutation rate was higher than when their paths followed the same direction. Most of the mutations from the collision were either insertions/deletions or substitutions in the promoter region of the gene, which may drastically affect protein production and an organism’s health.

Building Cellular Circuits

Binary tunnel and DNA strandTimothy Lu, a 2011 New Innovator, designed cells to remember and respond to a series of events, creating biological “state machines.” When cells are activated by a specific input, enzymes called recombinases either delete or invert a particular stretch of DNA. The affected DNA contains further sites for other recombinases to act on depending on an additional input, and so on. The cell’s history can then be read by sequencing its DNA. Lu built circuits for 3 inputs with 16 possible states. The ability to respond and record combinations of biological events and their order provides researchers with a tool to study temporal organization in cell regulation and disease progression.

Creating Memory Loss

Brain impulsesJoanna Jankowsky, a 2007 New Innovator, showed that spatial memory decays when the entorhinal cortex in the brain malfunctions. The entorhinal cortex funnels sensory information to the hippocampus where the information is bound together to form a memory and function in spatial navigation. The entorhinal cortex in a mouse model was genetically engineered with cell receptors that could be silenced with the drug ivermectin. When the entorhinal cortex was turned off, distinct brain patterns coding for specific spatial locations were altered, and the mice couldn’t successfully complete mazes they had previously learned. The findings provides more clarity on how the hippocampus is required to learn a new environment and recall it, and provides a model for studying conditions like Alzheimer’s.

Ultra-Resolution Microscopy

Abstract network moleculesPeng Yin, a 2010 New Innovator and 2013 Transformative Research awardee, enhanced DNA nanotechnology-powered super-resolution microscopy to visualize distinct molecules only five nanometers apart. The ultra-high resolution is achieved through a novel method that compensates for movements of the microscope stage and by further harnessing the power of DNA-PAINT, which is based on the transient binding of short strands of complementary DNA, one which is tagged with a fluorescent dye and the other is attached to the molecule of interest. The method opens the way for researchers to study individual molecular features in molecular complexes that may ultimately lead to a greater understanding of their functions.

Finding the Needle in a Haystack: New Tool to Find Significant Results from Genome-Wide Association Data

Cells Under microscope Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have the ability to reveal thousands of genetic variants associated with a particular disease or trait (cancer, height, etc.). While GWAS studies have become a powerful new tool for researchers, they also reveal thousands of potential variants of which many are not directly related to a condition but merely associated. Finding the genetic changes that drive a disease or trait can be difficult, especially when the variants are in non-coding regions of the genome. While non-coding regions of the genome do not directly express genes, they often regulate the expression of coding areas. Dr. Sabeti, New Innovator Awardee, and colleagues have devised a new tool that can directly identify which variants are affecting expression on a very large scale. The group was able to take an existing technology (published as a companion paper in the same issue of Cell) and scale it to examine more variants while also reducing noise and increasing the sensitivity of the test. This new resource should prove to be highly effective to many researchers who already have access to GWAS data but are having difficulty interpreting their results. 


Broad Institute News: A massive approach to finding what's "real" in genome-wide association data

Direct Identification of Hundreds of Expression-Modulating Variants using a Multiplexed Reporter Assay. Tewhey R, Kotliar D, Park DS, Liu B, Winnicki S, Reilly SK, Andersen KG, Mikkelsen TS, Lander ES, Schaffner SF, and Sabeti PC. Cell. 2016 Jun 2; 65(6):1519-29. 

Histone Mutation Linked to Pediatric Cancers

Cancer cellBenjamin Garcia, 2010 New Innovator, and Ping Chi, a 2012 New Innovator, found a link between a single mutation in a gene coding for a histone and pediatric cancers. The mutation blocks specialization in the type of stem cell that can form cartilage, bone, and fat. Mice with the mutation developed undifferentiated pediatric sarcoma. They also found 20% of human tissue from undifferentiated sarcomas had the mutation. Their work is the first to demonstrate a histone gene mutation can cause cancer by itself and provides a potential drug target in the fight against cancer.

Genome Architecture Regulated through Topologically Associated Domains

DNASteven Kosak, a 2011 New Innovator, tested the relationship between the linear and 3D organization of gene regulation during muscle formation and found them to be linked through topologically associated domain (TAD) architecture. TADs are a unifying structural model for chromatin organization, and Kosak found they influence and inform cell-specific genome organization. Changes in organization influence transcription and require cell division to be established.

Topologically Associated Domains Enriched for Lineage-Specific Genes Reveal Expression-Dependent Nuclear Topologies during Myogenesis. Neems DS, Garza-Gongoar AG, Smith ED, Kosak ST. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Mar 22;113(12):E1691-700.

The Importance of DNA Folding in Stem Cells

Cell nucleusJennifer Phillips-Cremins, a 2015 New Innovator, published a paper exploring why lab-made stem cells may fail to correctly turn back into adult cells: The genomes in the cells retain folding patterns that partially resemble the adult cells’ folded DNA from which they were made. Her lab mapped the folded pattern of genomes by chemically fixing the folded genome so sections of linear genetic sequence are fixed near spatially adjacent (but not sequentially adjacent) pieces of DNA. The spatially adjacent pieces end up in the same string of hybrid DNA and are detected together when the DNA is sequenced. These hybrid pieces can be used to infer which DNA segments are adjacent to each other in the genome’s folded state, elucidating the 3D genome. Phillips-Cremins also found they could make more accurate folding states in stem cells by changing the medium they are grown in. Her research opens new possibilities in stem cell engineering for experiments and treatments.

Untangling Neurons

Neurons and their connectionsViviana Gradinaru, a 2013 New Innovator, untangled highly intermingled neuronal circuits in a region of the brain implicated in motor impairment (found in Parkinson’s disease patients) and addiction. Neurons were mapped using a technique developed by the Grandinaru lab called Passive CLARITY Technique, which dissolves lipids in tissue and makes the brain optically transparent. By marking the neuron with fluorescent proteins, each neuron path could be followed through the brain. The affected behavior was determined through manipulation of the neural activity using optogenetics, which can turn a neuron on or off using light. The techniques enable brain-wide functional and anatomical mapping of neuron complexes that can help inform future treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s.

Counting Molecules with qPAINT

MitochondriaPeng Yin (2010 New Innovator and 2013 Transformative Researcher) and Avital Rodal (2012 New Innovator) published a paper in Nature Methods describing enhancements in optical super-resolution microscopy for counting molecules in complexes. Quantitative points accumulation in nanoscale topography (qPAINT) improves DNA-PAINT by working independently from dye photophysics for robust counting with high precision and accuracy over a wide dynamic range. The method is immune to photobleaching and is capable of multiplexing for a large number of targets.

Making Liposomes

MoleculesWilliam Shih (2008 New Innovator) and Chenxiang Lin (2014 New Innovator) developed a technique to create tiny, membrane-bound vesicles called liposomes. Using “DNA-origami,” liposomes were fabricated by folding single-stranded DNA into a customized shape with the help of short staple strands of DNA. Lipid molecules were then placed inside the structure to help guide the formation of liposomes from 29 to 94 nanometers in size. The ability to fabricate specific sizes of liposomes enables scientists to study how cells and subcellular compartments interact and may eventually enable efficient drug delivery to target cells.


Shortening Time between Vaccine Boosters

Checking vaccineVaiva Vezys, a 2009 New Innovator, found shortened time between vaccination boosters still enables functional and protective antigen-specific CD8 T cells. Current heterologous prime-boost-boost vaccination strategies generate large numbers of long-lasting memory CD8 T cells but require at least 28 days to 6 months between boosters and can leave the host vulnerable for an extensive period of time during the process. By shortening the length of time between boosts to 2 weeks, Vezys showed protection comparable to the long-term boosting intervals was still achieved. The shortened boosts did not form stable long-term memory, but the shorter boosting time may help increase vaccination compliance and could be useful in situations where protection needs to be achieved rapidly, such as in disease outbreaks.

Tuberculosis and Smoking

SmokingIra Hall, a 2009 New Innovator, discovered a possible mechanism explaining why smokers are more susceptible to tuberculosis. Using a zebrafish tuberculosis model with Mycobacterium marinum, Hall examined macrophage response to mycobacterial infection. During mycobacterial infection, macrophages with lysosomal storage cannot migrate to or engulf infected apoptotic macrophages, leading to secondary necrosis and increased mycobacterial growth. This phenotype is recapitulated in human smokers where alveolar macrophages accumulate tobacco smoke particulates in lysosomes, which impedes migration to and engulfment of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The incapacitation of macrophages severely hampers the ability to fight the mycobacterium, and may explain why smokers are more susceptible to tuberculosis infection.

Mutations in Neurons

Nerve cellDavid Tobin, a 2011 New Innovator, documented somatic mutations in neurons through whole-genome sequencing using a nuclear transfer method to clonally amplify the genomes of neurons from adult mice. Neurons are of particular interest because they maintain their identity without cell division or replacement during the lifetime of the organism and face unique genomic threats due to their high metabolic rate and use of epigenetic chromatin remodeling and DNA breaks to alter gene expression. Tobin found individual neurons harbor ~100 unique mutations from all classes except recurrent rearrangements. Most neurons contain at least one gene-disrupting mutation and rare mobile element insertions. The frequency and gene bias of neuronal mutations differ from other lineages, possibly due to novel mechanisms governing postmitotic mutation. Tobin was further able to clone fully fertile mice from several neurons, showing mutated adult neuronal genomes are compatible with reprogramming.

Fruit Flies Adjust Courtship Song Based on Distance

FruitflyMala Murthy, a 2014 New Innovator, discovered male fruit flies are able to adjust the intensity of their courtship song to compensate for their distance from the female (such control was previously identified in only humans and songbirds). Murthy analyzed each stage of the neuronal pathway underlying the male’s ability to adjust his courtship song, from visual cues to estimate distance to signals sent through the nervous system to change muscle activity to create a louder or softer song. Studying the process and mechanisms behind this behavior in the fruit fly can help illuminate the building blocks for social interactions across the animal kingdom.

Gene Therapy Across the Blood-Brain Barrier

VirusesViviana Gradinaru, a 2013 New Innovator, modified a virus so it is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier to deliver genes to nervous system cells. Gradinaru made millions of modifications to the protein shell of a small, harmless virus called an adeno-associated virus and determined which variants most effectively delivered genes to astrocytes in the brain by searching for the delivered gene load. The process was repeated until the most effective viruses were found. The virus could help researchers map the brain and be used to deliver gene therapeutics for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's.

Infection Survival Influenced by Nutrient Intake

BacteriumJulie Canman, a 2011 New Innovator, published a paper identifying a novel link between nutrient intake and tolerance of infection to the bacterial pathogen Burkholderia cepacia (important in hospital-acquired infections) in Drosophila circadian period mutants. Tolerance to infection was stimulated with exposure to dietary glucose and amino acids. Canman investigated the role of the amino-acid-sensing pathway Target of Rapamycin (TOR) in immunity and found TORC1 inhibition decreased resistance while inhibition of TORC2 increased resistance and tolerance. The TOR pathway offers a potential therapeutic target for survival of infection.


Using Gene Editing to Treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

Gene editingAmy Wagers (2008 New Innovator), George Church (2013 Transformative Researcher), and Feng Zhang (2012 Pioneer; 2010 & 2015 Transformative Researcher) published back-to-back Science papers on using the CRISPR-Cas9 system to edit the genome of a mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy and improving muscle function. The researchers loaded a virus with the DNA-cutting tool CRISPR and infected the mice's muscle cells. CRISPR excised a defective stretch of DNA, shortening the dystrophin protein and making it functional. The functional protein led to muscle improvement and increased strength in the mice and brings hope for one day using gene editing to treat human's with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

Silencing Chromosome X Genes by Xist RNA

DNA StrandsSundeep Kalantry, a 2011 New Innovator, published a paper showing X chromosome inactivation in females is not solely due to the activity of X-inactive specific transcript (Xist) RNA as previously believed. Using Xist RNA induced mice, Kalantry found Xist RNA can silence X-linked genes in females but not in males. The results suggest that both Xist induction and X-linked gene silencing are orchestrated by the handful of genes that do not undergo X inactivation in females.

Mapping Body Language

MiceSandeep Datta, a 2010 New Innovator, developed new computational techniques that read complex patterns of behavior and body movements of mice and organizes them into units. Using the video-game device Microsoft Kinect, Datta was able to capture mouse movements and recreate them on screen in 3D. With this data, he realized changes in the mouse’s posture and movement could be organized into distinct units with identifiable patterns. The techniques propose a solution to the longstanding problem in neuroscience of how to objectively study complex three-dimensional patterns of animal behavior without relying on subjective human observers, and Datta hopes the method will lead to new insight into how the brain creates behavior and how that process is disrupted in disease. View the video abstract below for more information.

Identifying Small RNA Targets

Protein synthesisJoseph Wade, a 2010 New Innovator, published a paper identifying regulatory targets of the Escherichia coli small RNA RhyB using ribosome profiling (Ribo-seq). Small RNAs typically regulate expression of messenger RNAs through base-pairing interactions, but identifying small RNA targets is difficult due to the short regions of base-pairing compared to the relatively long small RNAs, which can also be influenced by secondary structures. With Ribo-seq, Wade was able to validate a majority of known RyhB targets and discover many novel ones. The technique is a powerful approach for identifying small RNA targets genome-wide and can distinguish small RNA regulation at the level of messenger RNA stability or translation.

Extending Youth in Worms

GenerationsMichael Petrascheck, a 2011 New Innovator, used an antidepressant drug to prolong life in roundworms by 30% by extending young adulthood with no effect on later life stages. Petrascheck believes the drug help coordinate gene activity, which tends to become more disorganized during aging (termed "transcriptional drift"). While it is still far from being a cure for human aging, it raises the possibility of using drugs to reduce or delay the onset of age-related disease.


Wake-Up Call to Drug Resistant Tuberculosis

TuberculosisSanjay Jain, a 2009 New Innovator and 2014 Transformative Researcher, reported successfully treating a child with extensively drug-resistant TB, or XDR-TB, in the United States. Treatment was difficult, even with vast resources available. Jain was able to successfully monitor and treat the young patient but warns the case is "a wake-up call to the realities of TB."

Extensively Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis in a Young Child after Travel to India.. Salazar-Austin N et al. Lancet Infect Dis. 2015 Dec; 15(12):1485-91.


New Model Shows Maternal Immune Cells Protect Against Severe Cytomegalovirus Disease

MonkeySallie Permar, a 2012 New Innovator, developed a nonhuman primate model of congenital cytomegalovirus transmission (the leading infectious cause of childhood hearing loss and brain damage) and used the model to demonstrate the important role the maternal immune system plays in disease severity and fetal loss. Maternal CD4(+) T-cell immunity during infection control viremia and induce protective immune responses. The model opens the pathway for clinically-relevant congenital CMV vaccine development and research.

Bacteriocins Alter Gut Bacteria Composition

BacteriaChristopher Kristich, a 2009 New Innovator, developed a model of colonization of the mouse gut with Enterococcus faecalis (a leading cause of hospital-acquired infections) to evaluate the role of plasmids encoding antibacterial proteins in enterococcal colonization. Kristich found that antibacterial proteins from commensal bacteria can influence niche competition in the gastrointestinal tract and that delivering antibacterial proteins by commensal bacteria occupying a precise intestinal niche may be an effective approach to eliminating colonization by multidrug-resistant bacteria without disrupting indigenous microbes.

m6A mRNA Methylation Directs Translational Control of Heat Shock Response

Cell nucleusShu-Bing Qian, a 2009 New Innovator, demonstrated the dynamic nature of N6-methyladenosine (m6A) modification to mRNAs, the most abundant post-transcriptional modification. In response to heat shock stress, increased methylation in the form of m6A promotes cap-independent translation initiation, providing a mechanism for selective mRNA translation under heat shock stress. Qian’s findings elucidate the physiological roles of m6A and uncovers a translational control mechanism in heat shock response.

Imaging Gut Microbiota Organization and Interactions

Bacteria cellsJustin Sonnenburg and Kerwyn Huang, 2009 New Innovators, developed a pipeline to assess the spatial organization and functional interactions of intestinal microbiota. Using immunofluorescence images of fixed gut cross-sections and BacSpace software, they created a method for high-throughput quantification of microbial organization.

Quantitative Imaging of Gut Microbiota Spatial Organization. Earle KA et al. Cell Host Microbe. 2015 October 14; 18(4):478-88.


Bioengineering Lung Vasculature

Chest x-rayHarald Ott, a 2011 New Innovator, regenerated functional pulmonary vasculature by repopulating the vascular compartment of decellularized rat and human lungs scaffolds with human cells, including endothelial and perivascular cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells. Increasing vascular performance will help maintain cell viability and improve function in lung grafts.

Engineering Pulmonary Vasculature in Decellularized Rat and Human Lungs. Ren X et al. Nat Biotechnol. 2015 October 8; 33(10):1097-102.


A Reference for Worldwide Human Genetic Variation

Crowd of peopleJeffrey Kidd, a 2011 Early Independence awardee, and Pardis Sabeti, a 2009 New Innovator, are part of the 1000 Genomes Project Consortium which released the findings from their project to whole-genome sequence a diverse set of individuals from multiple populations in Nature. In all, they sequenced the genomes of 2,604 individuals from 26 populations, discovering 88 million variants. Their resource includes >99% of SNP variants with a >1% frequency for a variety of ancestries. They discuss the distribution of genetic variation across the globe and discuss implications for common disease studies.


3-Drug Combo Kills MRSA Superbug

Bacteria or superbugGautam Dantas, a 2012 New Innovator, discovered a combination of three antibiotics is effective against Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The three antibiotics are already approved by the FDA and are members of a broad class of drugs called beta-lactams, which are not effective against MRSA when used alone. Mice infected with MRSA died within a day, but infected mice treated with the triple antibiotics were completely cured. The study also found no evidence of antibiotic-resistance developing with the use of the combined antibiotics.

Synergistic, Collaterally Sensitive ß-Lactam Combinations Suppress Resistance in MRSA. Gonzales PR, et al. Nature Chemical Biology. 14 September 2015; 11:855-861.

Making Three-Dimensional Tissues

CellsZev Gartner, a 2013 New Innovator, developed a method to create and program the size, shape, composition, and spatial heterogeneity of tissue. The method, called DNA-programmed assembly of cells (DPAC), uses cells with DNA tags that rapidly bind with complementary DNA sequence-tagged cells or substrates with high specificity. A DNA-patterned substrate functions as a template, and, layer-by-layer, DNA-tagged cells assemble to build 3D tissue structures. Once the structure is complete, extracellular matrix gels embed the tissue while DNase releases the tissue from the substrate. The method allows for the direction of specific cell types to precise locations in the 3D structure, as well as, dictating the size and shape of the tissue, and can generate tissue several centimeters long.

Programmed Synthesis of Three-Dimensional Tissues. Todhunter ME, et al. Nature Methods. 31 August 2015; 12:975-981.

Engineering Bioartificial Limbs for Transplantation

Hand x-ray - arthritisHarold Ott, a 2011 New Innovator, engineered a bioartificial limb graft for transplantation that reduces the risk of donor transplantation and the need for immunosuppression. Donor forearms from rats and primates were decellularized to create an acellular scaffold that preserved the composite architecture and properties of the musculoskeletal system. Muscle progenitor, endothelial, and mesenchymal cells were used to repopulate the scaffold and create a bio-composite graft. Bio-artificial grafts using the native scaffold and patient derived cells could be produced on demand and would not require immunosuppression after transplantation.

Engineered Composite Tissue as a Bioartificial Limb Graft. Jank BL, et al. Biomaterials. 2015 August; 61:246-256.

Anesthesia's Effects on the Brain Differ in the Elderly and in Children

AnesthesiologistPatrick Purdon (2009 New Innovator) and Emery Brown (2012 Transformative Researcher and 2007 Pioneer) released four papers on brain activity under anesthesia in children and the elderly that address how to improve anesthesia care and advance the neuroscience of development and aging. They found anesthesia-induced brain dynamics mirrors brain development in children, where different brain wave patterns under anesthesia appear to “turn on” at particular ages, coinciding with known brain developmental milestones. A similar effect is seen in the elderly but in reverse—certain brain waves seem to fade away in a manner consistent with known patterns of brain aging. Elderly patients are much more sensitive to anesthetic drugs than current age-adjusted dosing guidelines suggest, and the elderly enter a coma-like state (associated with poor cognitive outcomes) at much lower doses than with young patients. Elderly animals emerge from anesthesia much more slowly than younger animals, but the drug methylphenidate accelerates emergence. Purdon and Brown also found commercially available EEG-based anesthetic monitors (developed for adults) seem inaccurate when applied to children and the elderly and suggest new age-specific monitoring guidelines.

SpeedSeq: Ultra-Fast Personal Genome Analysis and Interpretation

Binary tunnel and DNA strandIra Hall, a 2009 New Innovator, published a paper in Nature Methods describing a new open-source genome analysis platform called SpeedSeq capable of aligning, detecting variants, and functionally annotating a 50x human genome in 13 hours on a low-cost server. SpeedSeq eliminates the substantial bioinformatics bottleneck that requires weeks of computation and extensive expert involvement.

SpeedSeq: Ultra-Fast Personal Genome Analysis and Interpretation. Chiang C et al. Nature. 2015 August 10.


Measuring the Wavefront of Scattered Light

PrismChangheui Yang, a 2010 New Innovator, published a paper in Nature Physics showing a new way to focus light in strong light-scattering media such as biological tissue. Controlling how light spreads through light-scattering media by shaping the light’s wavefront is challenging when the mapping between the input wavefront and scattered output wavefront is unknown. Yang overcame the mapping hurdle by using shift/shift optical correlations, rather than the traditional tilt/tilt correlations, allowing him to map the light’s wavefronts and opening new possibilities for communication and biomedical imaging.

Translation Correlations in Anisotropically Scattering Media. Judkewitz B, Horstmeyer R, Vellekoop IM, Papadopoulos IN, and Yang C. Nature Physics. 2015 June 29; 11:684-689.

Reinforcing the Circadian Clock to Gate Immune Response

Vintage clockNicolas Buchler, a 2011 New Innovator, published a paper in Nature describing how two biological clocks work together to help plants maintain daily activities while dealing with intermittent demands, such as infections. The researchers identified the gene NPR1 in Arabidopsis as the master immune regulator, which acts as a sensor of the plant’s redox state and regulates transcription of core circadian clock genes. Changes in the redox status caused by immune challenges do not compromise the circadian clock but actually reinforce it by regulating morning and evening clock genes without changing the period. This balanced network helps plants gate immune responses toward morning and minimizes costs on growth at night.

Redox Rhythm Reinforces the Circadian Clock to Gate Immune Response. Zhou M et al. Nature. 2015 June 22; 523:472-476.

Accelerating Wound Healing

Construction AbstractDino Di Carlo, a 2010 New Innovator, published a paper in Nature Materials showing accelerated wound healing with the use of an injectable, interconnected microporous gel scaffold from annealed microgel building blocks. The chemical and physical properties of the microgel building blocks can be tailored to fit the needs of the tissue and provides a scaffold for tissue regrowth and regeneration. In vitro, cells incorporated during the scaffold formation flourished and formed extensive three-dimensional networks within 48 hours. In vivo, the scaffolds aided cell migration that resulted in rapid tissue regeneration and structure formation within five days.

Accelerated Wound Healing by Injectable Microporous Gel Scaffolds Assembled from Annealed Building Blocks. Griffin DR, Weaver WM, Scumpia PO, Di Carlo D, and Segura T. Nature Materials. 2015 June 1; 14:737-744.

Resetting the Brain to Cure Developmental Disorders

Human cyborg brainSunil Gandhi, a 2013 New Innovator, published a paper in Neuron demonstrating a new method to reactivate plasticity in the adult brain to correct earlier developmental disorders through transplantation of embryonic inhibitory neurons. Using this method, Gandhi was able to correct amblyopia (lazy eye) in adult mice. The method is a powerful investigative tool for understanding developmental mechanisms that create critical periods in development and brain disorders. Such studies could lead to therapies for diseases like epilepsy, schizophrenia, and autism and could assist with conditions such as spinal cord injury or strokes.

Inhibitory Neuron Transplantation into Adult Visual Cortex Creates a New Critical Period that Rescues Impaired Vision. Davis MF et al. Neuron. 2015 May 20; 86(4):1055-1066.

Scientists Cure Disorders in Mice by Resetting Their Brains

Monitoring the Progress of Stem Cells after Transplantation into Brain

Active neuronJin Hyung Lee (2010 awardee) devised a way to monitor neural stem cells after transplantation in the brain by combining functional magnetic resonance imaging, optogenetics, and electrophysiology. Many central nervous system disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, are characterized by defective nerve cells in specific brain regions, making them excellent candidates for stem cell therapies, which replace defective nerve cells. However, assessing the success of such experiments are difficult because there is no good way to evaluate what happens to transplanted stems cells following the procedure. With Lee’s new method, scientists are able to determine not only whether the stem cells transplanted into living animals survived, but also whether they matured into nerve cells, integrated into targeted brain circuits, and function correctly. Being able to monitor stem cell transplantations will help guide future therapies—what kind of cells to put in, where to place them, and how—and will accelerate the development of new treatments of central nervous system disorders.

Direct in vivo assessment of human stem cell graft-host neural circuits. Byers B et al. Neuroimage. 2015 Apr 22; http://

Press release

Manipulating Gene Regulation

DNA modificationCharles Gersbach, a 2011 awardee, developed a new tool for manipulating gene regulation. By creating and using a programmable CRISPR-Cas9-based-acetyltransferase, Gersbach and colleagues demonstrate it is possible to activate transcription of target genes from promoters and proximal and distal enhancers with high specificity. This new tool will enable direct manipulation of the epigenome and downstream regulation, allowing researchers to examine the relationship between the epigenome and transcriptional control with the potential of precisely controlling cell phenotypes.

Epigenome editing by a CRISPR-Cas9-based acetyltransferase activates genes from promoters and enhancers. Hilton IB et al. Nat Biotechnol. 2015 May; 33(5):510-517.

HIV Latency Confers Evolutionary Advantage

HIV VirusLeor Weinberger, 2013 Pioneer and 2009 New Innovator Awardee, published back-to-back papers in Cell that demonstrate HIV latency is caused by the virus itself, rather than by the immune cells as was previously thought, and identified the protein Tat as the crucial regulator of mediating whether the virus is active or latent. This work also suggests that latency is a naturally selected tactic employed by the virus to increase infection rates. This research provides important information about how and why latency is established and maintained, opening the door to novel therapeutic approaches to treat HIV infection.

A hardwired HIV latency program. Razooky BS et al. Cell. 2015 Feb 26; 160(5):990-1001.
An evolutionary role for HIV latency in enhancing viral transmission. Rouzine IM, Weinberger AD, Weinberger LS. Cell. 2015 Feb 26; 160(5):1002-1012.

Press release 

Protein Tangles Spell Trouble for Cancer Cells

PipetteNew research has demonstrated that a destructive biological process involved in Alzheimer’s disease may hold promise as a novel treatment strategy for cancer. Anomalies in protein folding can generate harmful protein deposits within cells, called amyloids. These amyloid deposits underlie several neurodegenerative disorders in humans, particularly Alzheimer's disease. While amyloids are widely recognized as killers of neurons, a new study from 2010 awardee Chengkai Dai at The Jackson Laboratory reveals that cancer cells are also vulnerable to these toxic proteins. Cancer cells manage to contain deleterious amyloids by hijacking a cellular stress response that has evolved to counter protein misfolding, thereby sustaining the cancer cells’ vicious survival and growth. But importantly, this study also points to a possible means of countering this effect. Surprisingly, the authors’ findings reveal that cancer cells, unlike normal cells, constantly suffer heightened intrinsic stress. As a result, cancer cells are therefore particularly susceptible to extrinsic insults, including the activity of therapeutic agents that either perturb protein folding or subdue the defensive stress response. These agents efficiently induce the generation of amyloids within cancer cells and thereby exert potent anti-cancer effects. Thus, this study highlights a potential therapeutic strategy that harnesses the culprit behind neurodegenerative diseases to combat malignancy.

MEK guards proteome stability and inhibits tumor-suppressive amyloidogenesis via HSF-1. Tang et al. Cell. 2015 Feb 12; 160(4):729-744.

Single Animal to Human Transmission Event Responsible for 2014 Ebola Outbreak

Ebola virusPardis Sabeti, senior associate member of the Broad Institute and 2009 awardee, led an extensive analysis of the genetic makeup of Ebola samples from patients living in affected regions. The international team of scientists used advanced technology to analyze the genetics of the Ebola samples extremely rapidly and were able to pinpoint a single animal human transmission event.

Press release


Two NIH Common Fund High Risk – High Reward Researchers named as 2013 Allen Distinguished Investigators

Markus W. CovertJeff Gore The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, co-founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and his sister Jo Lynn Allen, was created with the goal of “transforming lives and strengthening communities by fostering innovation, creating knowledge, and promoting social progress” through its philanthropic efforts. In 2010, the Foundation created the Allen Distinguished Investigators Awards to support high-risk, high-reward ideas in science. The program awards grants to ambitious scientists who are pioneering, innovative, early-stage researchers. Two NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Investigators were selected as 2013 Allen Distinguished Investigators: Jeff Gore (2012 New Innovator from MIT) and Markus Covert (2009 Pioneer from Stanford University). Gore will use the $1.5 million prize to investigate decision making and the evolutionary origins or cooperation using yeast as a model. Covert will also receive $1.5 million and plans to use this grant to study whole-cell models of higher organisms, including human cells. These awards will be funded over the course of three years, and the Foundation hopes these grants will enable the awardees to unlock fundamental questions in biology that are essential to achieving world-changing breakthroughs.

The Allen Distinguished Investigators Award

Two HRHR researchers awarded world’s largest brain research prize

Edward S. BoydenKarl Deisseroth Two NIH Common Fund High-Risk, High-Reward Awardees were named as winners of The Brain Prize for 2013, which is awarded by the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation.  Americans, Karl Deisseroth, a 2005 Pioneer Awardee, and 2012 Transformative Research Awardee, and Edward S. Boyden, a 2007 New Innovator, and 2012 Transformative Research Awardee and four European scientists were awarded the 2013 prize for their contributions to the development of “optogenetics.”  Optogenetics is a technique that merges the fields of optics and genetics using light to specifically control the activity of genetically selected neurons.  This revolutionary technique has allowed scientists to begin to gain a better understanding of the way circuits of neurons carry out complex functions. This technique has broad application potential in research from studying fundamental activities, such as memory formation and breathing, to more complex disorders and diseases, such as addiction, psychiatric disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Brain Prize, the world’s largest brain research prize, is awarded to scientists who have made an outstanding contribution to European brain research, and is awarded to scientists who have conducted research in Europe, or to scientists who have conducted research in collaboration with European scientists.

Brain Prize 
2013 Press Release .

Scientists Bioengineer Transplantable Kidney In Rats


New Innovator Harald C. Ott and his colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have developed a new method to bioengineer kidneys that could someday enable scientists to generate and transplant patient-specific bioengineered organs into patients. Kidneys play a critical role in the maintenance of homeostasis in the body by filtering waste and excess fluid from the blood. There are approximately one million patients in the U.S. with kidney failure, or end-stage renal disease (ESRD); the only possible cure is kidney transplantation. Currently, the waitlist for kidney transplants in the U.S. is more than three years long. Even with successful transplantation there is a high risk for transplant rejection or loss of transplant function over time.

The scientists from MGH were able to remove cells from cadaver kidneys, not normally suitable for transplantation, to create a cell-free kidney scaffold that maintained the protein structure and composition of normal functioning kidneys. Once the host cells were removed, the researchers used human umbilical vein cells and neonate mice kidney cells to repopulate the kidney. Following an incubation that mimics the human body environment, the researchers showed that the patient-specific kidneys had restored function and were able to reabsorb electrolytes and sugars, and produce urine both in the laboratory and in kidneys they transplanted into rats. These bioengineered kidneys could potentially address two major issues currently challenging kidney transplantations. First, they provide the initial steps towards developing kidneys in the lab that can be transplanted into patients, effectively reducing the wait time for critical ESRD patients. Second, developing the technology to repopulate bioengineered kidneys with patient-specific cells could result in a reduction in the risk of kidney rejection after transplantation. While these bioengineered kidneys still need to be developed further before they become a fully implantable treatment option in human patients, this new technology can be applied to other organs, and is leading the way toward organ bioengineering.

  • Watch Dr. Ott describe this work on the NatureVideoChannel here
  • Read the MGH News Release here 

Song JJ, Guyette JP, Gilpin SE, Gonzalez G, Vacanti JP, Ott HC. Regeneration and Experimental Ortotopic Transplantation of a Bioengineered Kidney. Nature Medicine, April 14, 2012. DOI: 10.1038/nm.3154.

Researchers Define Precise EEG Signature of Anesthesia-Induced Unconsciousness

EEG Signature of Anesthesia-Induced Unconsciousness

More than 60,000 patients in the United States undergo general anesthesia for surgery every day. Currently, doctors use indirect measures of the brain state, such as heart rate and blood pressure, along with drug pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and exhaled anesthetic gas typically are converted to a simple index score to indicate if a patient is adequately anesthetized during surgery. These indices are neither entirely reliable nor very informative. Inadequately administered anesthesia can result in intraoperative awareness and post-operative delirium. Drs. Emery N. Brown and Patrick L. Purdon, former NIH Director’s Pioneer Awardee and current NIH Director’s New Innovator Awardee, respectively, have studied brain activity during propofol-induced anesthesia using electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, which measures scalp electrical potentials, to better understand the mechanism of unconsciousness and to establish a direct method of tracking the transition between consciousness and unconsciousness during general anesthesia. In this study, the researchers gradually administered and reduced the anesthesia drug propofol in patients, while monitoring brain activity and behavioral loss of consciousness by asking patients to respond to auditory stimuli. This gradual induction and emergence from anesthesia allowed the researchers to precisely define an EEG brain signature, as well as behavioral markers that are associated with consciousness, unconsciousness, and the transition between these two states in patients undergoing propofol-induced general anesthesia. This research has provided a deeper understanding of the mechanism of propofol-induced loss of consciousness, and could be used to determine the EEG brain signatures of other anesthetics. Additionally, these results could be used to develop more direct and reliable methods for monitoring brain states of patients undergoing general anesthesia and could lead to new insights into the tailoring of drug dosage in real-time.

P. L. Purdon et al., Electroencephalogram signatures of loss and recovery of consciousness from propofol. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (March 4, 2013, 2013). PMID: 23487781

Success with Gene Circuits Could Lead to New Approaches to Gene Thearpy


A gene circuit refers to the complex mechanism by which genetic material, encoded by DNA, interacts with proteins resulting in a specific phenotype, or an observable characteristic. This can be more readily understood by imagining an electrical circuit, where you can turn a light switch on or off to produce an observable characteristic of light or darkness, respectively. Gene circuits can be turned on or off just like a switch, thus the expression of the associated phenotype can therefore be turned off or on. Additionally, these circuits can be expressed as more than just on or off. Imagine a light switch with a dimming function by which the light can be expressed at different intensities. Similarly, these gene circuits can be regulated in order to express at different intensities rather than just on or off, in order to produce phenotypic differences at varying levels of expression. In nature, multiple genes in multiple gene circuits of a cell interact to regulate major biological processes like cell signaling or division. Researchers can construct simple synthetic gene circuits in order to study the expression of specific genes in living systems, such as microorganisms, as well as to create novel biological functions for practical applications.

NIH Director’s New Innovator Awardee, Gábor Balázsi, and colleagues have described a new method where they developed and optimized a synthetic gene circuit in yeast and were able to adapt the gene circuit to mammalian cells. Importantly, the authors optimized this gene circuit allowing them to finely adjust gene expression in a linear fashion with uniform gene expression across the entire cell population. Previously, scientists had been unable to directly transfer gene circuits developed in microorganisms directly into mammalian systems, such as human cells. Dr. Balázsi’s new findings will allow researchers to design circuits that can be tested and characterized in microorganisms, such as yeast, which are easier to engineer than mammalian cells, and then introduce the circuits into mammalian cells, a model more similar and representative to study the complexities of human disease. These gene circuits can be used to study the effects of specific gene expression on biological functions such as development, immune response, and nervous system response, and can be used to develop precisely controlled gene expression systems for use in individualized gene therapy to treat specific diseases and genetic conditions.

D. Nevozhay, T. Zal, G. Balazsi, Transferring a synthetic gene circuit from yeast to mammalian cells. Nature communications 4, 1451 (Feb 5, 2013).

New Model Allows Scientists to Study Mechanism of HCM Development and Test Drugs for Treatment

Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM)

Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) is a prevalent heart condition that involves the thickening of the heart walls, which overtime can lead to the development of an irregular heart beat and sudden cardiac death. HCM has been estimated to be the most common inherited heart condition in the world, and has been associated with several DNA mutations affecting sarcomeres, or the basic unit of a muscle.

Dr. Joseph Wu, an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award Recipient from Stanford University, and his colleagues, have developed a new technology using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) obtained from skin cells of a family of patients that allows them to model HCM at the level of a single cell. The researchers were able to turn the skin-derived iPSCs into heart muscle cells, permitting them to investigate the underlying causes of HCM development without requiring the difficult direct collection of diseased heart tissue. This model allowed the researchers to better understand how a specific DNA mutation, carried by affected members of this particular family, can lead to the development of HCM, and helped them to test therapies that might be used to treat or prevent HCM due to this specific mutation. This new technology can be used by other researchers to investigate the effect of other DNA mutations on the development of HCM, and to screen the effectiveness of new treatments and preventative therapies specific to each mutation.

Read the San Francisco Chronicle Article...

Lan F, Lee AS, Liang P, Sanchez-Freire V, Nguyen PK, Wang L, Han L, Yen M, Wang Y, Sun N, Abilez OJ, Hu S, Ebert AD, Navarrete EG, Simmons CS, Wheeler M, Pruitt B, Lewis R, Yamaguchi Y, Ashley EA, Bers DM, Robbins RC, Longaker MT, Wu JC. Abnormal calcium handling properties underlie familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy pathology in patient-specific induced pluripotent stem cells. Cell Stem Cell. 2013 Jan 3;12(1):101-13. PubMed PMID: 23290139.

Self Assembling DNA Bricks

Self Assembling DNA Bricks

Dr Peng Yin and Dr. William Shih, both awardees of the Common Fund NIH Director’s New Innovator Award program, have described a new method to construct complex three dimensional structures by using short synthetic DNA strands which the investigators call “DNA bricks.” In this paper, the investigators used 32-nucleotide DNA strands which self-assembled into prescribed 3D structures without scaffolds. Each DNA brick can bind up to four local neighbors, and in a manner similar to Lego® bricks can be used to build complicated structures. This self assembly has allowed the investigators to create over 100 distinct structures which can be found here. This method may have a large variety of applications such as to develop smart drug delivery particles or provide a better way for nano-scale fabrication of inorganic materials.

Yonggang Ke, Luvena Ong, William Shih, Peng Yin Three-Dimensional Structures Self-Assembled from DNA Bricks, Science - 30 November 2012 (Vol 338, pp1177-1183)

More information describing the self assembly process can be found in the two videos below:

Video 1 Animated video containing narration which describes how 3D structures of DNA bricks are assembled.

Video 2 Animated video which depicts the nanofabrication technique called “DNA-brick self-assembly” using short synthetic strands of DNA that work like interlocking Lego® bricks.

Tele-medical Device Wins Top Honors

Tele-medical Device

Dr. Aydogan Ozcan, an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award recipient, and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) garner first place in The Scientist magazine, “Top Ten Innovations of 2011” competition by developing a cell phone camera attachment that functions as a mobile microscope. The device known as LUCAS (Lensless, Ultra-wide-field Cell monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging), is a light-weight holographic microscope that uses inexpensive off-the-shelf parts as an attachment to a cell phone’s camera. Biospeciman samples are loaded into the slide attachment of the device, and then battery operated light emitting diodes (LEDs) are used to illuminate the specimen and produce an image of the cells shadows. The image is then remastered using an algorithm remotely run from a computer. Although the resolution of the LUCAS is at the submicrometer level, the microscope can be used for wide-field imaging. The technology coupled with the use of a cell phone provides a plethora of opportunities to capture and electronically transport biospeciman images in real time. The device can be used for water quality testing and even to monitor diseases such as Malaria. At the estimated cost of approximately 10 USD for the LUCAS attachment, the technology has the potential of providing diagnostic services to resource limited areas across the nation. Field tests around the world are already being planned for the LUCAS in 2012.


Mudanyali O, Tseng D, Oh C, Isikman SO, Sencan I, Bishara W, Oztoprak C, Seo S, Khademhosseini B, Ozcan A. Compact, Light-weight and Cost-effective Microscope based on Lensless Incoherent Holography for Telemedicine Applications, 2010.June10. PMCID: PMC2902728

New material holds promise for drug delivery, medical implants

New Material Holds Promise for Drug Delivery, Medical Implants

Dr. Adah Almutairi, a 2009 NIH Director’s New Innovator awardee, and colleagues at the University of California San Diego, have developed a new type of “smart” polymeric material that may have widespread medical and biological applications. Reported in the journal Macromolecules, the new material disassembles in response to harmless levels of near infrared (NIR) irradiation, which can penetrate up to 10 centimeters (almost 4 inches) into the body. Both the material itself and its breakdown products are well-tolerated by living cells, suggesting this material would potentially be safe for use in humans. This type of material could be used as a capsule for a drug, allowing doctors to only release the drug in a specific area, such as right next to a tumor. It could also be used in tissue engineering, implants, wound-healing, and biosensors. Dr. Almutairi and colleagues are now working on improving the design of this polymeric material, so that it becomes even more sensitive to NIR, allowing a more controlled disassembly of the material. This research is a significant step forward in the development of light-sensitive materials that will allow doctors and researchers to target previously inaccessible sites with precise spatial and temporal control.

Fomina N, McFearin CL, Sermsakdi M, Morachis JM, and Almutairi A. Low power, biologically benign NIR light triggers polymer disassembly. Macromolecules, 2011. 44: 8590-7. PMID: 22096258.

Brain stem cell environment

Location, Location, Location: Scientists Uncover New Information about Brain Stem Cell Environment

The adult mammalian brain contains several specialized areas where stem cells capable of producing new neurons reside. Dr. Chay Kuo, an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award recipient, has identified key components of one such specialized area, or niche, that is critical for the production of new neurons. Published in the July 14, 2011 issue of Neuron, Dr. Kuo and colleagues demonstrate that two proteins, Foxj1 and Ank3, are critical for maintaining the cellular niche around brain stem cells. Foxj1 is a transcription factor, a type of protein that regulates when and where other genes are expressed. Within the stem cell niche studied by Dr. Kuo, the Foxj1 protein causes the Ank3 protein to be expressed. The Ank3 protein then helps assemble groups of ependymal cells, a type of cell that surrounds the brain stem cells and provides support for the production of new neurons. Without Foxj1 and Ank3 proteins, the niche is disrupted and stem cells fail to produce new neurons. Currently, when neural stem cells are studied in the laboratory, they are not surrounded by these ependymal cells. Under these conditions, it is extremely difficult to make the stem cells produce neurons. The findings of Dr. Kuo and colleagues suggests that in the laboratory setting, scientists may need to recreate the same kind of support provided by ependymal cells in the brain stem cell niche. By understanding the local cellular environment that helps support production of new neurons, researchers hope to improve future therapeutic strategies that use stem cells to produce neurons for repairing or replacing damaged tissue.

Paez-Gonzalez P, Abdi K, Luciano D, Liu Y, Soriano-Navarro M, Rawlins E, Bennett V, Garcia-Verdugo JM, and Kuo CT. Ank3-dependent SVZ niche assembly is required for the continued production of new neurons. Neuron, July 14, 2011. 71: 61-75. PMID: 21745638.

High Throughput Strategy for Testing Nerve Regeneration

High ThroughputFinding new drugs to promote regeneration of damaged nerve cells holds great promise for diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injury, brain trauma, and more. Many potential treatments, while promising in cell cultures, fail to promote regeneration in living animals. In a paper published October 13th in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Mehmet Yanik, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an NIH Director's New Innovator awardee, demonstrates a novel method to rapidly screen potential drugs for their ability to promote nerve regeneration in the nematode C. elegans. Using this method, Dr. Yanik and colleagues discovered that compounds which regulate protein kinase C (PKC), an enzyme important for many different cellular processes, can modulate nerve regeneration after injury in specific neurons. The ability of this method to efficiently screen large numbers of potential drugs in living animals may greatly accelerate the discovery of new treatments to promote nerve regeneration.

Samara C, Rohde CB, Gilleland CL, Norton S, Haggarty SJ, Yanik MF. Large-scale in vivo femtosecond laser neurosurgery screen reveals small-molecule enhancer of regeneration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010 Oct 26; 107(43): 18342-7. Epub 2010 Oct 11. PMID: 20937901.

New Tools to Correct Brain Activity

Brain ActivityMany neurological and psychiatric disorders are associated with abnormal activity in specific brain circuits. Historical approaches to correct abnormalities in brain circuits have relied on the use of electrical or magnetic stimulation, which only relieve the symptoms partially or for a short time. Although contemporary electromagnetic stimulation techniques have overcome many of the drawbacks of earlier approaches, a continuing and pressing need remains for new medical approaches to systematically correct abnormal brain function in patients with epilepsy, brain injury, and Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Ed Boyden in the Common Fund’s New Innovator program has engineered a powerful new class of tools to shut down nerve activity for short periods of time using different colors of light. These techniques are based on genes recovered from bacteria and fungi that encode light-activated proteins normally used for energy production in these organisms. When nerve cells expressing these proteins are exposed to the appropriate wavelength of light, they are prevented from transmitting electrical signals. When used in combination with genetic techniques to target these proteins to specific brain regions or cell subsets, these tools can lead to a much deeper understanding of the brain’s role in health and disease. The development of new technologies that allow precise control of neural circuits could lead to new treatments for disorders associated with abnormal brain activity, including chronic pain, epilepsy, brain injury, and Parkinson’s disease.

This page last reviewed on June 21, 2022