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Early Independence Award

Creative Minds: Tackling Chemotherapy Resistance

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Aaron Meyer

Aaron Meyer

For many young scientists, nothing can equal the chance to have a lab of one’s own. Still, it often takes considerable time to get there. To help creative minds cut to the chase sooner, the NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards this year will enable 17 outstanding young researchers to skip post-doctoral training and begin running their own labs immediately.

Today, I’d like to tell you about one of these creative minds. His name is Aaron Meyer, a cell signaling expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and his research project will take aim at one the biggest challenges in cancer treatment: chemotherapy resistance.

Cool Videos: Myotonic Dystrophy

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Myotonic Dystrophy Video screenshot

Today, I’d like to share a video that tells the inspirational story of two young Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers who are taking aim at a genetic disease that has touched both of their lives. Called myotonic dystrophy (DM), the disease is the most common form of muscular dystrophy in adults and causes a wide variety of health problems—including muscle wasting and weakness, irregular heartbeats, and profound fatigue.

If you’d like a few more details before or after watching these scientists’ video, here’s their description of their work:  “Eric Wang started his lab at MIT in 2013 through receiving an NIH Early Independence Award. Learn about the path that led him to study myotonic dystrophy, a disease that affects his family. Eric’s team of researchers includes Ona McConnell, an avid field hockey goalie who is affected by myotonic dystrophy herself. Determined to make a difference, Eric and Ona hope to inspire others in their efforts to better understand and treat this disease.”


Creative Minds: Targeting Cancer with Lasers and Nanoballoons

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Man in a lab

Jonathan Lovell
Photo by Douglas Levere

When most people think about cancer treatments, what typically come to mind are the side effects of traditional chemotherapy: cardiac, liver, and renal toxicity; hair loss; nausea; fatigue—just to name a few. These side effects occur because the cancer drugs damage not just cancer cells, but healthy cells as well. “Targeted” cancer therapy, on the other hand, is designed to target just the cancer cells. Some targeted therapies achieve this because they only attack cells with a particular molecular signature; others are directed to the cancer by physical means. Today, I’d like to introduce you to a researcher who’s developing a targeted drug delivery strategy that uses lasers and light activated drug delivery to fight cancer.

Jonathan Lovell, a Canadian-born researcher at the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) and recipient of the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, has designed unique nanosized spherical pods—1/1000 the diameter of a human hair—that open when light shines on them and snap shut in the dark. Lovell will fill these pods, also known as liposomes—hollow fat droplets—with anti-cancer drugs. He’ll then inject them into the body, where they’ll circulate, safely and silently: until they’re activated. When Lovell shines a red laser on the tumor, the light triggers the balloons to open and deliver a blast of the drug—only where it is needed. (Red light penetrates human tissue better than other colors.) It’s a terrific example of how bioengineering can bring fresh solutions to longstanding medical challenges.

Creative Minds: Lighting Up Memory

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Christine Denny, Columbia UniversityOne of the most debilitating, and heartbreaking, consequences of Alzheimer’s disease is the way it slowly robs people of their memories. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a cure for Alzheimer’s, let alone a good understanding of exactly how this disease destroys memory skills. That’s why, in this first post in my series highlighting some of the awardees in NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, I’m excited to introduce a young scientist who’s using some cool technology to tackle this formidable challenge: Christine Ann Denny.

A winner of a 2013 NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards (often called the “skip-the-postdoc” award), Denny has developed a technique to label the cells that encode individual memories in the brains of mice. That’s right: she tags the nerve cells that build these memories, the neurons, with a fluorescent molecule that glows.

Forbes 30 Under 30 Highlights NIH Stars

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Wow! Seeing this new Forbes list just made my day! It’s inspiring to glimpse the up and coming young minds who will be shaping tomorrow’s science. But what makes me particularly proud is that four of them—Mitchell Guttman, Gregory Sonnenberg, Adam de la Zerda, and Daniela Witten— are recent recipients of the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award—a “skip the postdoc” grant that allows young minds to unleash their creativity, talent, independence, and drive.

Photos of the four Early Indepence Award winners: Mitchell Guttman, Gregory Sonnenberg, Adam de la Zerda, and Daniela Witten

Here’s a quick taste of just what makes these grantees so noteworthy. Guttman, an assistant professor at Caltech, is studying a new type of gene that regulates embryonic development. Gregory Sonnenburg, an immunologist at University of Pennsylvania, studies the role of beneficial bacteria in the gut and why the immune system sometimes turns against these friends. Daniela Witten, assistant professor at the University of Washington, is creating machine learning programs that massage vast amounts of data into useful and actionable knowledge—one example is personalized cancer therapy. Adam de la Zerda, assistant professor at Stanford, is using nanotechnology to understand cancer and age-related macular degeneration.

Another exceptional advocate for medical research tops the Forbes’ list of 30 under 30. Josh Sommer, a young man who was diagnosed with a rare cancer called chordoma when he was 18, is someone I have had the pleasure of encouraging and mentoring. Josh now runs the Chordoma Foundation that has raised $2.5 million and supports research in 11 labs.

All of these young scientists are amazing, and I look forward to seeing all the wonderful innovative work they do.

With a healthy dose of tongue in cheek, I’m happy to announce that the AARP just chose me as one of the “50 over 50” influential leaders—so I guess there’s also hope at the other end of the spectrum.

Happy holidays, everyone!

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