Four School of Medicine faculty members have been named recipients of this year’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Awards.
Megan C. King, Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology, and Christian D. Schlieker, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, are recipients of New Innovator Awards, each worth $1.5 million for five years. James F. Leckman, M.D., Neison Harris Professor of Child Psychiatry, and professor of psychiatry, psychology, and pediatrics, and Bruce E. Wexler, M.D., senior research scientist and professor emeritus of psychiatry, are joint recipients of a Transformative Research Award, worth approximately $4 million over four years.
New Innovator Awards are meant to support “exceptionally creative new investigators who propose highly innovative projects that have the potential for unusually high impact.” In comparison with traditional NIH grants, the New Innovator Awards are designed to support research projects that are at an early stage and may lack the preliminary data usually required for the mainstays of NIH funding known as R01 grants.
King, whose project is titled “The Role of Nuclear Architecture in Adaptation,” studies the interface between the nucleus and cytoskeleton in cells, and the ways in which structural elements of the cell nucleus influence genome stability. In times of stress, greater flexibility of genetic mechanisms may promote adaptation.
King is studying how nuclear compartmentalization influences the balance of genome stability and adaptability through mechanisms such as DNA repair. Understanding these processes may help determine how some organisms become pathogenic, and may lead to new ways to fight infectious disease.
King was also named one of fifteen Searle Scholars for 2011 by the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust, which supports the research of promising young scientists in the chemical and biological sciences who have recently been named assistant professors on a tenure-track appointment.
Schlieker’s project is called “Deciphering Novel Protein Quality Control Pathways in the Nuclear Periphery.” A biochemist, Schlieker focuses on the mechanisms of protein folding, particularly in instances when mutations of proteins in the membrane of a cell’s nucleus cause diseases like the progeria syndromes, in which children experience symptoms of rapid aging. Schlieker and members of his lab study how these proteins are repaired or degraded in the nuclear envelope. Understanding this process may one day lead to new treatments for viral infections as well as the wide assortment of musculoskeletal and neuronal disorders collectively called nuclear envelopathies.
The Transformative Research Award initiative was created “to support exceptionally innovative and/or unconventional research projects that have the potential to create or overturn fundamental paradigms,” and typically supports risky work with little preliminary data that may not fare well in standard grant applications.
Leckman and Wexler’s project, “Integrated Brain, Body, And Social Intervention for ADHD,” explores an innovative and non-pharmacologic treatment for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that emphasizes a combination of cognitive and physical exercises designed to “cross-train” the brain. The physical component of the intervention was developed by Jinxia Dong, Ph.D., professor of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at Peking University and a former national gymnast. The grant will fund a trial of the new treatment program in schools in both Hamden, Conn., and Beijing, China.
Leckman served as director of research at the School of Medicine’s Child Study Center for 25 years. He studies Tourette syndrome, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and autism. In 2007, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation (formerly NARSAD) awarded him the Ruane Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Research for his work on the causes, pathophysiology, treatment, and prevention of severe child psychiatric illness.
Wexler has been a pioneer in the effort to harness neuroplasticity in new treatments for the incapacitating cognitive deficits associated with major mental illnesses. Yale has applied for multiple patents for the computerized cognitive exercises he has developed to engage and promote development of under-functioning neural systems.