Visionary research

Three faculty receive NIH awards to pursue innovative ideas

Andrew Yoo, PhD, Robert W. Gereau IV, PhD, and Michael R. Bruchas, PhD
Robert Boston

NIH grant awardees, from left: Andrew Yoo, PhD, Robert W. Gereau IV, PhD, and Michael R. Bruchas, PhD

BY Jim Dryden

Three scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have received awards to pursue visionary research that has the potential to transform science and improve public health.

The awards are part of the High Risk-High Reward program supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Common Fund

Andrew Yoo, PhD, assistant professor of developmental biology, received a $2.3 million NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. Robert W. Gereau IV, PhD, professor of anesthesiology, and Michael R. Bruchas, PhD, assistant professor of anesthesiology, will share a $3.9 million NIH Director’s Transformative Research Project award with John A. Rogers, PhD, professor of materials science and engineering, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Yoo studies the genetic pathways at the root of one of biology’s most enduring mysteries: What determines a cell’s fate in the body? In the laboratory, Yoo has shown he can manipulate these pathways to convert one cell type into another. Recently, for example, he transformed human skin cells into brain cells called neurons. 

Now, Yoo is going one step further to convert human skin cells into specific types of neurons in the brain. His research suggests it may one day be possible to regrow healthy neurons in patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease. 

“So far, our discoveries have been made in petri dishes,” Yoo says. “With this new funding, we can evaluate how well the neurons we have grown can function in animal models. Ultimately, we hope our studies will be a big leap forward in the field of regenerative medicine to help treat neurodegenerative disorders.” 

Meanwhile, Gereau, Bruchas and Rogers will be working to develop tiny, light-emitting devices that could allow them to map the molecular and cellular properties of neural circuits. With this knowledge, scientists can better understand how those circuits transmit pain after nerve injury. Visualizing how the circuits connect and transmit pain signals could allow them to develop and test potential new treatments.

“The technique we will be studying could allow us to track pain signals as they are transmitted,” says Gereau, who is chief of basic research at Washington University’s Pain Center. “Our project aims to develop very small light-emitting devices that are capable of permanent integration with the central and peripheral nervous systems so that we might use these tools to study and treat neurological diseases.”

In all, the NIH has awarded approximately $155 million for 81 projects to encourage creative thinkers to pursue exciting and innovative ideas about biomedical and behavioral research. The Transformative Research awards program, established in 2009, was designed to promote interdisciplinary approaches to complex biomedical problems.

“The Common Fund High Risk-High Reward program provides opportunities for innovative investigators in any area of health research to take risks when the potential impact in biomedical and behavioral science is high,” says NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD.

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