Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) Associate Professor Nathan Grubaugh has received a prestigious New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in recognition of his potentially transformative biomedical research as a young career investigator.
The award, part of NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, is given to highly innovative scientists who propose visionary and broadly impactful behavioral and biomedical research projects.
Grubaugh, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases), is one of three Yale scientists to be honored with a New Innovator Award this year. The other two honorees are Assistant Professor of Therapeutic Radiology Louisa Escobar-Hoyos and Assistant Professor of Genetics Berna Sozen. A total of 72 researchers in the United States received New Innovator awards in 2022, according to an NIH announcement today (Oct. 4).
“The science advanced by these researchers is poised to blaze new paths of discovery in human health,” said Lawrence A. Tabak, who is performing the duties of the director of NIH. “This unique cohort of scientists will transform what is known in the biological and behavioral world. We are privileged to support this innovative science.”
As part of the award, Grubaugh and the Grubaugh Lab at YSPH will receive a $1.5 million, five-year grant from NIH to continue their groundbreaking work investigating new ways to apply genomic surveillance to better identify and understand the genetically complex variants of the dengue virus.
The Grubaugh Lab focuses on genomic epidemiology, which is the study of how viruses spread, how they cause disease, and how they adapt to new environments. The findings help researchers better understand and respond to emerging pathogens and global outbreaks of disease. The lab currently conducts research into several viruses including Zika, dengue, and, most recently, SARS-CoV-2 and its variants such as Omicron, which cause COVID-19.
The Grubaugh Lab is also working with public health agencies and diagnostic labs in Connecticut and New England to establish a SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance system to track emerging variants. The lab is applying a similar framework to track dengue virus variants in the Caribbean as part of the new NIH grant.
The team shares its work, such as virus genetic data and protocols and analysis tools, with peers so they can understand what drives emerging diseases and respond according to the best information available.
While he was named the official recipient of the NIH New Innovator honor, Grubaugh credited his lab colleagues with making the award possible.
“All of this stems from having an amazing team of people that are dedicated to working in public health,” Grubaugh said. “I marvel at the things we’ve accomplished together.”
Genetic-informed control measures for dengue virus
The research being funded by NIH Director’s New Innovator Award via the agency’s Common Fund is intended to address the scarcity of data that currently exists regarding the dengue virus’s genetic diversity. This lack of knowledge has limited the ability of scientists to develop genomics-informed control measures for dengue, similar to those employed for SARS-CoV-2.
In its research proposal to NIH, the Grubaugh Lab said it is seeking to “develop the technical framework to modernize dengue virus genomic surveillance and research and provide the most detailed picture yet of virus diversity and spread in the Caribbean.”
The lab plans to develop a universal dengue virus whole genome sequencing approach based on the framework being globally established for SARS-CoV-2. It also will work to create a collaborative network in underserved regions of the Caribbean to better understand dengue virus diversity and to provide local training and sequencing support. The lab will use travel surveillance to provide information from outside the network to inform other genomic surveillance systems.
While the work focuses on dengue, it will have widespread implications for global public health.
The Grubaugh Lab Team
Grubaugh says he came to Yale in 2018 wanting to work in a public health setting and specifically in outbreak response. Trained as an epidemiologist and in microbiology, he wanted to merge the two disciplines, using his expertise in biology to inform epidemiology.
Grubaugh Lab member and Associate Research Scientist Chantal Vogels is originally from the Netherlands and completed her PhD there. She came to YSPH in 2018 to complete her postdoctoral research, adding genomics to her repertoire of scientific knowledge. Like Grubaugh, she says the lab’s interdisciplinary expertise is “really powerful” when it comes to tackling complex public health issues.
“I feel like the whole (NIH-funded) project is going to be very impactful because we’re drawing on what we’ve learned from the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and utilizing that to improve our understanding of dengue and how the vaccines and other control tools can be informed by having a better understanding of virus genetic diversity,” she said.
YSPH student Nick Chen, MPH ’23, joined the lab as a summer intern working on the team’s SARS-CoV-2 genomics surveillance program. Since then, the research associate has helped to develop a protocol to sequence monkeypox virus at state public health labs.
Chen says the team used amplicon-based sequencing on the monkeypox project. This highly targeted approach allows researchers to analyze genetic variation in specific genomic regions. This relatively new approach for sequencing viruses was developed in part by Grubaugh, Chen said, and allows for use of a much wider array of samples than was possible with the former sequencing approach. Chen said he has benefited greatly from working in the lab with, and being mentored by, Grubaugh.
The lab’s work on genome and pathogen sequencing is on the cutting edge, Chen said, and the lab collaborates with other experts who are also on the leading edge of their respective scientific fields. This has led to the development of innovative new techniques that can be shared with other public health labs and departments.
Both Vogels and Chen credit Grubaugh’s leadership, mentorship, and scientific knowledge for the team’s success.