UNC Scientist Receives Grant for 'Exceptional' Research

Brian D. Strahl, associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine, is among the first recipients of a new award for innovative, potentially revolutionary research.

The grants, the first made under a new National Institutes of Health program called EUREKA (Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration), fund innovative research projects the agency believes could have an extraordinarily significant impact on many areas of science.

Strahl, one of 38 scientists nationally to receive a EUREKA grant, will receive about $200,000 per year for four years. He will use the funding to work on deciphering what’s known as the “histone code,” which researchers think may play a role in health and disease.

Histones are proteins that help package DNA so that strands several feet long can fit into each cell in the body. To control this process, enzymes in the cell cause small chemical changes in histones. Numerous studies by Strahl and others indicate that these modifications may work together in the form of a histone code to regulate DNA activities such as gene expression – the activation and silencing of genes – and DNA repair.

“Defects in the enzymes that modify histones cause a wide variety of human diseases including cancer,” Strahl said. “Evidence also exists that these enzymes play a role in aging, neurodegeneration, molecular mechanisms regulating drug addiction, and stem cell biology.

“However, we only have limited information about how histone modifications interact with one another to elicit their biological effects on health and disease.”

Strahl will use the EUREKA grant to develop a high-throughput approach to screen for human proteins known to associate with DNA packaging, with the long-term goal of understanding how histone modifications contribute to the possible histone code and human biology and disease.

Strahl joined the UNC faculty in 2002. In 2004, he was chosen as a Pew Biomedical Scholar. He also received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2003 and was named a Jefferson-Pilot Fellow in Academic Medicine in 2006.