Profs awarded generous grant

Two young Yale professors have been recognized by the National Institutes of Health for the promise their research holds for both their careers and the world.

Derek Toomre, a professor of cell biology at the Yale School of Medicine, and David Spiegel, a professor of organic chemistry, have each received a $1.5 million New Innovator Award from the NIH. The five-year grants will allow the two to pursue major research projects in their fields.

In its first year, the New Innovator program awarded 29 grants to scientists from across the country. To emphasize its focus on young scientists, those who had previously received NIH grants were excluded from consideration. Even still, more than 2,100 scientists applied for the award, said Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medicine Sciences, one of the 27 NIH institutes.

The prize is much higher than those grants ordinarily given to young scientists, Berg said.

“It’s the largest size for a young investigator, and so we’re looking for a high level of innovation and a high level of potential impact,” he said.

Toomre said his research uses sophisticated microscopic technology called Total Internal Reflection Fluorescent Microscopy to examine cells. The award will allow him to develop new instruments to investigate intracellular movement as it relates to diseases, especially diabetes.

“You couldn’t look at one still picture of a football game and determine all the rules and movements,” Toomre said. “The same is true here — it’s better to watch live.”

School of Medicine professor Carolyn Slayman noted that Toomre is well-known for bringing together multiple disciplines in his research.

“Derek sits at the interface between cell biology and engineering,” she said. “He works back and forth between finding the big medical problems and finding the state-of-the-art techniques and tools to solve those problems.”

Toomre said his NIH application focused on how microscopic technology could help people suffering from diabetes. His aim is to help illustrate traffic at the cell membrane that transports glucose from the blood stream into the cell. The research could also easily have applications for cancer treatment, Slayman said.

Studying disease processes at the cellular level is key to understanding illness, biomedical engineering professor James Duncan said.

“Ultimately, if you look at lots of these cells, you can understand the relationships between how a normal cell acts and how it changes in a diseased condition, which can help with diagnosing the problem and treating it,” Duncan said.

Spiegel, the other grant recipient, is one of only three chemists in the country to win a grant. He said his NIH application focused on the development of synthetic molecules that can recruit the body’s immune system to attack dangerous cells.

This type of treatment would be useful in the treatment of cancer and HIV, Spiegel said, as pathogenic cells could be targeted and eliminated by the molecules.

“The award is a real coup for the field of synthetic chemistry,” Spiegel said. “We’re starting to realize that we can use the same tools that we’ve been using for many years to make drugs and polymers to make highly functional molecules. These molecules can essentially hijack a person’s immune system and redirect it to problematic cells.”

Spiegel’s selection for the award was especially thrilling because he was initially told that his application had been rejected. When more funding became available for the program, his proposal was approved.

“It’s extremely exciting. It’s the kind of grant every young investigator dreams of,” Spiegel said.

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