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Duke biomedical scientists win 2 highly prized NIH Director's Awards

Durham, N.C. Two Duke University Medical Center scientists have won prestigious National Institutes of Health Director's awards to pursue novel research.

Tannishtha Reya, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, has won an NIH Director's Pioneer Award and Michel Bagnat, Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology, won an NIH Director's New Innovator Award.

Each of the 18 Pioneer Awards provides $2.5 million in direct costs over five years. The 55 New Innovator Awards provide $1.5 million in direct costs, also for five years.

Reya, co-director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Program at the Duke University School of Medicine, studies the chemical signals that control stem cell growth. She has successfully shown in several recent papers how the same signals can also fuel cancer growth thus identifying new targets for therapy.

The proposal that won the award focuses on a new direction in Dr. Reya's lab: imaging stem cell growth and cancer formation in living organisms. These studies will provide key insights into the behavior of stem cells under physiological conditions.

"I was very excited to hear about the Pioneer Award," Reya said. "Not only is this a great honor, but it will allow us to undertake a series of high-impact experiments that may require us to take some risks that we otherwise would not have been able to carry out. In the long term, understanding the environment in which stem cells live may provide new ways to manipulate their growth for patients who need new blood cells, and new approaches to stopping leukemias."

Bagnat won his award to pursue research on fluid secretion that depends on a gene known to have several mutations linked to cystic fibrosis. The gene, CFTR, encodes for a protein that works as an ion channel across cell membranes. The studies will focus on fluid secretion related to the gene and will use genetics to identify regulators of the CFTR channel.

"I was very pleased to hear that I won this award, and now I have a chance to develop experiments that reflect the ideas I have," Bagnat said after hearing about his award. "The award will give me and my colleagues time and resources to pursue important questions."

He studies the zebrafish, because its genetics are well established and zebrafish embryos are transparent and readily available for imaging. His laboratory plans to use this visual advantage to study physiology and address how fluid secretion and pressure contribute to organ development.

The Pioneer Awards are designed to support individual scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. Awardees are required to commit the major portion (at least 51%) of their research effort to activities supported by the Pioneer Award.

The New Innovator Award addresses two important goals: stimulating highly innovative research and supporting promising new investigators. To win the award, investigators must have exceptionally innovative research ideas, but not the preliminary data required to fare well in the traditional NIH peer review system. The procedure for evaluation emphasizes the individual's creativity, the innovativeness of the research approaches, and the potential of the project to have a significant impact on an important biomedical or behavioral research problem.


Contact: Mary Jane Gore
Duke University Medical Center

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