Nine Harvard researchers are set to receive a total of more than $200 million in grants over the next five years under a National Institutes of Health program that funds “high-risk, high-reward” research.
The researchers – Adam Granger, Rachel Buckley, Benjamin P. Kleinstiver, Kara McKinley, Ellis Monk, Carlos Ponce, Silvi Rouskin, Dabattama Rai Sen and Bo Xia – are among 103 scientists selected by the program nationwide.
The grants fund “exceptionally creative scientists pursuing highly innovative research with potential for significant impact in the biomedical, behavioral, or social sciences,” according to the NIH website.
The NIH grants program distributes four different categories of awards: the Pioneer Award, the Transformative Research Award, the Early Independence Award, and the New Innovator Awards.
The Harvard researchers selected to receive the money study a wide range of disciplines, from sociology to stem cells and neuroscience.
Five of the recipients – Kleinstiver, Ponce, Buckley, Rouskin and Sen – are on Harvard Medical School.
Kleinstiver, an assistant professor at HMS, works on genome editing technology, including CRISPR, and the development of new gene editing tools.
“The specific goal of the grant itself was to find a way to scalably engineer the CRISPR Cas enzymes,” he said.
Ponce, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology at HMS, studies visual neuroscience using machine learning to visually represent the brains of primates. He said he plans to use grant funding to obtain new technologies, such as better electrodes, optogenetics and high-density probes.
Buckley, assistant professor of neurobiology at HMS, studies preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. She plans to use the funding for a project that seeks to find out why women are two-thirds more likely to have dementia than men.
Her research suggests the gender differences may stem from the tau protein, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and is produced in greater amounts in people who experience menopause earlier. She plans to focus her research on the structure and function of the X chromosome.
“Right now we’re focusing a lot on hormones, and we’re focusing a lot on menopause, and I think part of that has to do with how easily we can measure some of these things,” Buckley said. “But looking at the chromosome is really difficult. If we can find a way to do it and do it well in life, I think it could have a real impact.
Rouskin, assistant professor at HMS, studies RNA structure in gene regulation and disease. Sen, a faculty member at HMS, studies immune dysfunction in viral infections and tumors.
McKinley, an assistant professor at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, examines the regenerative abilities of the uterus, which is destroyed and rebuilt in monthly cycles approximately during menstruation.
“Historically, women’s health has been underfunded — especially women’s health that doesn’t relate to pregnancy,” McKinley said. “I was really pleased to see that they are willing to invest in this kind of work.”
McKinley hopes to establish a population of African spiny mice – one of the few organisms that can menstruate – to design and conduct experiments to better understand diseases such as cancers and endometriosis.
Monk, a professor in the sociology department who studies race and ethnicity in the United States, was the only social science faculty member to receive funding through the program.
He plans to examine how social differences contribute to health disparities by creating a nationwide longitudinal survey. He also plans to work with clinicians to find out why pulse oximeters are less accurate for patients with darker skin.
Both Xia and Granger conduct research at the Broad Institute, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT specializing in biomedical research.
Xia – a principal investigator at the Broad Institute who studies how the organization of the genome affects development, disease and evolution – said the grant is a “career turning point” that will allow her to continue exploring the molecular side of human evolution and primitive apes.
Granger, a principal investigator at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, focuses on the changes that occur in the connectivity between different types of neurons in the brain in psychiatric disorders. His research uses viral infection tools, with a particular focus on rabies, to measure gene expression and map neural connections.
Granger said the NIH grant money will allow him to hire more people and take more risks in his research.
“Because this is a high-risk, high-reward grant mechanism, I can kind of shoot for the stars there and take a chance and really work for something more transformative – even if the chances of success are really low,” Granger said.