Erik M. Shapiro, Ph.D., assistant professor of diagnostic radiology and biomedical engineering at the School of Medicine, has been awarded a $1.5 million New Innovator Award by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Shapiro, who arrived at Yale in 2006 and directs the Molecular and Cellular Magnetic Resonance Imaging Laboratory in the Department of Diagnostic Radiology, is developing new ways to enhance cellular and molecular magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to allow scientists to observe, measure and even manipulate cell migration in living tissue.

“Erik is an internationally respected researcher, and as evidenced by this award, is doing some of the most exciting and innovating research in mri today,” says R. Todd Constable, Ph.D., professor of diagnostic radiology, neurosurgery and biomedical engineering, and a colleague and mentor of Shapiro.

Grappling with the cellular damage or cell death caused by brain diseases and injury, including stroke, is one of Shapiro’s interests.

There has been great interest in using stem cells to repair damaged brain regions, but creating a reliable and effective source of human embryonic stem cells, the most clinically promising type, has been politically charged and scientifically challenging. In recent years, scientists have discovered “stem cell niches”—microenvironments in the adult body in which dormant stem cells can be activated in response to tissue injury—and Shapiro envisions steering large numbers of these quiescent stem cells to specific locations in the body to repair damaged tissue.

Using MRI technology in vivo on single cells in intact animals, Shapiro is studying the influence of nano- and micro-particles, whose MRI properties can be engineered to be sensitive to various stimuli, on the number, direction and destination of migrating cells.

“Our hypothesis is that increasing the number of neuroprogenitor cells that migrate to a stroke site will increase the ability of that stroke site to restructure itself, to heal.” Shapiro says. “It could lead to a new type of stem cell therapy. Instead of delivering stem cells from another source, we’ll manipulate the stem cells that already exist in the body. Whether this approach completely supplants cells from other sources, or adds to them, remains to be seen.”

The New Innovator Awards cover laboratory costs over a five-year period and are given to young researchers who have not yet received NIH research grants. This year, NIH awarded 47 scientists $138 million under its New Innovator and Pioneer Award programs. Recipients are chosen through rigorous application and evaluation processes involving several hundred scientific experts. Recommendations for awards are made to NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D.

“This award will allow us the freedom to take a high risk/high reward approach to a novel type of stem cell therapy, namely the biochemical steering of endogenous, adult multi-potential cell migration,” Shapiro says. “The use of MRI to monitor these experiments is important because, if these procedures prove successful, we can further implement the same imaging methodologies in translation to primate and human studies.”

Shapiro received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2001, and then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular and cellular imaging at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Prior to his appointment at Yale, he was an assistant professor of diagnostic radiology at New York University School of Medicine.