Three Win Major NIH Awards for Innovation

A trio of scientists from Carolina have received prestigious awards from the National Institutes of Health aimed at encouraging high-risk research and innovation.

Joseph DeSimone has been selected for a Pioneer Award, one of 18 such honors handed out this year, and Klaus Hahn and Mark Zylka are receiving a new accolade called “Transformative” RO1 awards.

The three researchers’ grants are among 115 awards worth $348 million announced by the NIH to encourage investigators to explore bold ideas that have the potential to catapult fields forward and speed the translation of research into improved health.

The Pioneer Award supports individual scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering — and possibly transforming approaches — to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. Awards are for up to $500,000 per year for five years.

The new T-RO1, or “Transformative” RO1 program, is named for the institutes’ standard RO1 grants, but without the traditional budget cap or requirement for preliminary results and with the flexibility to work in large, complex teams. According to the NIH, this means scientists are free to propose new, bold ideas that may require significant resources to pursue.

DeSimone, Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of chemistry, will use the award to develop new methods for delivering promising biological therapeutics — such as proteins, antibodies and nucleic acids — to specific locations in the body in a safe and effective fashion. Such methods and therapies could be used to treat many different diseases, including cancer, autoimmune, inflammatory, metabolic, cardiovascular, ophthalmologic and numerous infectious diseases, as well as neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and for the treatment of pain. The research will build on DeSimone’s existing work, including his invention of techniques for mass-producing “custom made” micro- and nanoparticles tailored to have specific sizes, shapes and surface properties. That technology, know as PRINT (Particle Replication in Non-wetting Templates), is exclusively licensed to Liquidia Technologies, a UNC spin-off company based in Research Triangle Park.

DeSimone is a member of UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the pharmacology department in the School of Medicine, and he is the founding director of the UNC Institute for Advanced Materials, Nanoscience and Technology, and the UNC Institute for Nanomedicine. He is co-principal investigator of the Carolina Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence. He also is William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at N.C. State University.

Hahn, Thurman Professor of pharmacology in the School of Medicine and UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy and and also member of Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, is collaborating with Harvard’s Gaudenz Danuser to develop new methods of measuring how information flows through large signaling networks within cells. Hahn says cellular signaling lies at the heart of nearly all cell behaviors, so a better understanding of the subtleties of signaling will generate insights regarding basic biological processes such as metabolism and aging, as well as diseases ranging from cancer to neurological disorders.

Zylka, assistant professor of cell and molecular physiology in the School of Medicine and a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, will investigate new ways to provide pain relief without serious side effects. His research will focus on harnessing particular enzymes found on the membrane of pain-sensing neurons and determining if these enzymes can be used alone or in combination to treat acute and chronic pain. In collaboration with a group headed by Stephen V. Frye in the center for integrative chemical biology and drug discovery at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Zylka will use medicinal chemistry to synthesize “prodrugs,” pharmacologically inactive compounds that convert to the active form of the drug within the body.

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