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Pitt researchers receive National Institutes of Health grants to support 'trailblazing' ideas in biomedical science

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Five University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine faculty members have received prestigious awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in recognition of their exceptional creativity and innovative research.

These grants accelerate scientific discovery by supporting creative, trailblazing ideas in clinical and basic biomedical science that may struggle under the conventional funding mechanism but could have a transformative effect in addressing important challenges in medicine.

“The science put forward by this cohort is exceptionally novel and creative and is sure to push at the boundaries of what is known,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins in a statement announcing the awards. “These visionary investigators come from a wide breadth of career stages and show that groundbreaking science can happen at any career level given the right opportunity.”

“To have five of our faculty members recognized in a single year is, indeed, cause for celebration,” said Anantha Shekhar, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean, School of Medicine. “These well-deserved awards recognize the outstanding potential of our early career investigators and highlight the academic environment at the University of Pittsburgh that fosters excellence in basic and clinical biomedical research.”


Christopher Donnelly, assistant professor of neurobiology, has been selected to receive a $9 million NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award.

He will lead a five-year multicenter effort to identify the molecular and genetic mechanisms that cause amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and a related disorder called frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD).

“ALS and FTLD are two fatal neurodegenerative conditions with no current treatment to prevent, slow or stop brain cell death, and some patients develop both disorders,” Donnelly said. “We think that studying their common biological pathways will help us find solutions for both disorders more quickly.”


Three Pitt faculty members received the NIH Director’s New Innovator Awards.

These $2.4 million grants are funded through the competitive NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, which was initiated by the NIH to provide support to “exceptionally creative scientists pursuing highly innovative research with the potential for broad impact in biomedical, behavioral or social sciences within the NIH mission.”

While most cell death studies focus on how cells die, Yi-Nan Gong, assistant professor of immunology, received an award to understand how some cells can begin to undergo a cell death process called necrosis, but eventually survive. The study seeks to understand how these survivor cells contribute to the development of cancers and determine new possible treatment targets.

“I am thrilled to join the ranks of other exceptional new innovators and their groundbreaking research here at Pitt,” Gong said. “With this prestigious award, we can take even bolder steps to conquer cancer and help patients.”

Dwi Utami Kemaladewi, assistant professor of pediatrics, received the New Innovator Award for her research on muscular dystrophies. While an individual’s genetic makeup plays a large role in determining how diseases caused by a single gene, like muscular dystrophy, are manifested clinically, studies to evaluate genetic treatments often fail to consider how people with diverse genetic backgrounds can impact the safety and efficacy of therapies.

Kemaladewi’s grant will focus on incorporating the element of genetic variation into the study of muscular dystrophy disease mechanisms and therapeutic development, making such research more inclusive and applicable to a broader population.

“The emergence of gene editing in the past few years presents exciting possibilities for new treatments for congenital muscular dystrophy,” Kemaladewi said. “The New Innovator Award gives me the opportunity to focus on technological development prior to conventional hypothesis-driven research. To be able to do that as a junior investigator is very liberating.”

Guang Li, assistant professor of developmental biology, received the New Innovator Award to develop heart “organoids” that mimic anatomical features to model and treat congenital heart defects (CHDs), which occur in 1-2% of all live births.

“This award gives my group an opportunity to explore the scientific boundaries in the cardiovascular and stem cell fields,” Li said.

The organoids, generated using induced pluripotent stem cells, will allow Li and his colleagues to model disease progression in patients. These techniques may lead to significant improvements in modeling the normal human heart development and congenital heart defects, with the ultimate goal of preventing and treating congenital heart diseases.


In addition to the High-Risk High-Reward grants received from the NIH, Jishnu Das, assistant professor of immunology, was awarded a $2.4 million New Innovator Award funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for a project that aims to create three-dimensional maps of protein interactions to study how genetic variation impacts the mechanism by which infectious pathogens interact with their hosts. Das and colleagues will apply their framework first to HIV and influenza, with the goal of expanding to other infectious diseases in the future.

“I feel truly privileged to have received this award as it allows me to leverage interdisciplinary principles of network systems biology and machine learning to address questions of key relevance to immunology and infectious disease,” Das said.

(Photographed above, from left to right: Jishnu Das, Christopher Donnelly, Yi-Nan Gong, Dwi Utami Kemaladewi, and Guang Li)