Three researchers from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA have received National Institutes of Health Director’s Awards for 2017, highlighting the game-changing potential of the research at UCLA. The awards, which total more than $10 million, are part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program supporting creative scientists who propose innovative, high-risk or unconventional biomedical research projects with the potential for unusually broad impact.
“I continually point to this program as an example of the creative and revolutionary research NIH supports,” NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said in an announcement of the awards. “The quality of the investigators and the impact their research has on the biomedical field is extraordinary.”
The program speeds scientific discovery by supporting research proposals that — despite their potential to advance the field — would be considered “risky” in the traditional peer-review process. Winners of the awards have shown evidence of thinking beyond more traditional parameters in order to pursue trailblazing research ideas.
For 2017, the NIH issued 12 Pioneer awards, 55 New Innovator awards, 8 Transformative Research awards and 11 Early Independence awards. The funding includes contributions from the NIH Common Fund; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Mental Health; National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; and National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
This year’s winners at UCLA are:
New Innovator Award, which supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant:
- Dr. Olujimi Ajijola
- Project Title: Multimodal Decoding of the Neural Circuitry of Sudden Death in Peripheral Ganglia
- Funding: $2.3 million
- Background: Ajijola, a cardiac electrophysiologist, focuses on understanding how cardiac injury induces remodeling within the cardiac nervous system, and how novel therapies targeting the nervous system may be used to treat cardiovascular diseases and modify sudden cardiac death risk.
Transformative Research Award, which promotes interdisciplinary approaches that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms:
- Anne Andrews
- Project Title: Micro- to Nanoscale Neurochemical Sensors
- Funding: $6 million
- Background: The project is to develop new, microscopic sensors to measure neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and dynorphin that relay messages between neurons. The sensors must withstand the wet and salty environment found inside living tissue. The goal is to enable unprecedented insight into how information is encoded in cell signaling. The impact will be toward understanding the function of the healthy brain in relation to complex behaviors, and corresponding dysfunction in psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders to ultimately identify new therapeutic targets for these diseases.
Early Independence Award, which provides an opportunity for exceptional junior scientists who have recently received their doctoral degree or completed their medical residency to skip traditional postdoctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions.
- Dr. Valerie Arboleda
- Project Title: Unraveling Correlations Between Mendelian and Common Disease Using Functional Genomics
- Funding: $1.9 million
- Background: Arboleda explores the genetics of human disease and the relationship between Mendelian disorders (disorders typically caused by mutation in a single gene) and complex disorders (diseases that are caused by multiple genetic variants in the coding and non-coding genome).