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UNC scientist receives NIH director's New Innovator Award

Chapel Hill - Ben Major, PhD, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology, has been awarded one of 33 National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Awards, one of the NIH's most prestigious grants.

The $1.5 million grant will fund his work to address a significant medical science challenge: identifying the full complement of genes that functionally contribute to specific cellular and disease processes such as cancer.

Major, a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, notes that in model systems such as flies, yeast and mice, scientists can specifically inactivate a gene within the genome to ascertain its function on the cellular or whole animal level. Until now, similar gene-knockout approaches have not been possible for the human genome.

He will build on previous scientific work to quickly and inexpensively determine the function of human genes in the context of specific cellular behaviors. Using technologies that he has helped to develop, his work will focus on identifying the genes that control cellular growth, division and migration within tissue key factors in cancer's formation and spread.

"If you were to randomly remove one piece of your car," Major explains, "your car may not start, your radio may not work or perhaps your door would not lock. Because you know what piece you removed and how that piece functions, you have a pretty good idea of how that will affect your car. Because we do not know how each of the 30,000 or so human genes function, we do not know the full complement of genes that are important for cancer initiation, cancer growth or cancer metastasis. What we are proposing should allow us to ascribe a function to each gene in the human genome, thereby identifying sets of genes that control cancer and other human diseases. We believe that these data will provide a foundation for developing new cancer treatments and diagnostics."

If successful, the low-cost, ease and speed of the new approach could accelerate scientific discovery in countless labs.

Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health, said, "NIH is pleased to be supporting early-stage investigators from across the country who are taking considered risks in a wide range of areas in order to accelerate research. We look forward to the results of their work."

The five-year grants are given to stimulate highly innovative research that has the potential for significant impact on a broad area of biomedical research. Major was honored at a September 30 meeting in Washington, DC, for his achievement.

Major joined the UNC faculty in 2009, after finishing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Associate. Major earned his PhD in oncologic sciences from the University of Utah/Huntsman Cancer Institute and a BS in microbiology from Michigan State University's Lyman Briggs School of Science.


Contact: Dianne Shaw
University of North Carolina School of Medicine

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