BY LOUIS BERGERON
Three School of Medicine scientists, including one jointly appointed with the School of Engineering, are among a select group of 13 researchers nationwide being recognized for their innovative work by the National Institutes of Health. The winners of the NIH Director’s 2005 Pioneer Awards will each receive up to $500,000 annually for five years to help fund their research.
With three winners, Stanford has more awardees this year than any other institution. The NIH announced the winners on Sept. 29. “Although the Pioneer Award is relatively new, it has quickly become one of the most prestigious and important recognitions by the NIH,” said Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “Having three Pioneer Award winners is simply remarkable.”
The Stanford winners are Thomas Rando, MD, PhD; Pehr Harbury, PhD, and Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD. The recipients were selected out of an initial pool of 840 applicants. In 2004, the first year of the awards, Stephen Quake, PhD, a Stanford professor of bioengineering, was one of nine award recipients. A scientist’s institutional affiliation is not a factor in the selection process.
The prize was established to encourage scientists to tackle major challenges in biomedical research using innovative approaches that have a high risk of failure but also the potential to produce monumental change. “The scientists we recognize with Pioneer Awards have far-ranging ideas that hold the potential to make truly extraordinary contributions to many fields of medical research,” said NIH director Elias Zerhouni, MD.
Rando, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences, said the award is “both an honor and a challenge.” The challenge, he added, will be to live up to the high standards the award sets.
Rando is looking for ways to enhance the potential of stem cells to repair damaged tissue in the elderly. His goal is to figure out how to compensate for the age-related decline in the body’s repair capability. His work also has the potential to help sufferers of degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy.
He said his research team has some data to suggest that it isn’t changes in the stem cells that reduce their ability to repair tissue with age, but changes in the environment, or niche, where they reside. This is what he’ll use the award money to explore.
Two types of people win a Pioneer Award, according to Jeremy Berg, co-chair of the NIH’s High Risk Research Implementation Group, which selected the winners. Some are established researchers switching their emphasis from a field where they’ve already been successful to one where they see more rewarding challenges, Berg said. But others, he noted, “are younger, at earlier career stages” with “potentially very high-impact ideas.”
Harbury, associate professor of biochemistry, and Stanford’s two other winners clearly fall into the latter category. Recently named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow (also known as a “genius” award), Harbury is trying to devise ways to use DNA molecules as blueprints for the synthesis of small chemical compounds that may be useful in drug design. He plans to use his Pioneer Award funding for more work in that area. Specifically, he hopes to develop a quicker and cheaper approach to designing drugs. “We’re trying to put the ‘magic’ into the magic bullet of drug design,” he said.
The third Stanford winner is Deisseroth, assistant professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, whose faculty appointments span both the School of Engineering and the School of Medicine. He has been focusing on the electrical circuitry of the brain, on the theory that some mental illness may be due to circuitry glitches rather than chemical imbalances. “We’re trying to bring high-speed bioengineering tools to the study of psychiatry,” he said.
Deisseroth hopes to develop two bioengineering tools using his Pioneer Award money, both using high-speed flashes of light to probe neurons. One would enable him to observe the circuitry of the brain on the millisecond time scale at which it operates. “To really achieve understanding of what’s going wrong with the brain, you really have to match that speed,” he said. The other tool would allow him to control brain circuitry, with the goal of developing an understanding of how to correct the abnormal circuit dynamics.
A common thread among the winners’ comments was an appreciation of the research they had been allowed—and encouraged—to do at Stanford. Indeed, Harbury explained that part of the reason he chose to join the faculty at the School of Medicine, was Stanford’s reputation for “allowing people to go out on a limb and try hard things.”
And that’s exactly the kind of research the Pioneer Award seeks to promote.