Breakthrough research nets two profs millions

For two Yale professors, Monday brought great news: The National Institutes of Health announced it would award millions of dollars to the investigators to support their innovative biomedical research.

Amy Arnsten, professor of neurobiology and psychology, and Jason Crawford, professor of chemistry and microbial pathogenesis, won two of the 78 awards given by the NIH “High-Risk, High-Reward” program this year. These grants are awarded to researchers who have either made a cutting-edge contribution to their field in the past, or who show promise of making a breakthrough in the future. The awards are especially meaningful because organizations like the NIH are usually hesitant to fund high-risk research, said Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern.

“We encourage scientists to do high-risk research, but at the same time researchers have great difficulty in securing grants for this,” Alpern said. “[NIH] is most certainly careful in selecting good research to support, and it’s terrific that our investigators have received these grants for what could be high-reward research.”

Arnsten received one of 12 Pioneer Awards, which she said is a particular honor because such awards are typically given to investigators with a history of research that advances their field. She said the award will amount to more than four million dollars over the next five years.

Arnsten’s lab has already identified a treatment for human cognitive disorders that is now in widespread use — guanfacine, a drug that has been shown to strengthen function of the prefrontal cortex. Arnsten said this is an area of the brain critical for higher-order thinking. She added that she attributes winning the Pioneer Award to her success in identifying guanfacine as a neurological treatment.

“This feels very huge because it’s [a] recognition of what we’ve accomplished, that we’ve broken through boundaries,” Arnsten said. “It’s also about [NIH’s] trust in us and what we will continue to do and I’m very moved by that.”

Crawford was one of 41 scientists to win a New Innovator Award, a prize that funds young researchers with potential to conduct novel research. He said he was thrilled and honored by the award, which totals nearly $2.5 million.

This NIH grant money will be used to investigate the dual function of bacteria in the human gut, Crawford said. The same bacteria that sometimes treat inflammation in human intestines can drive colon cancer in a different situation, he said. Crawford added that only in the last five years have microbiologists begun to investigate the change in function of bacteria.

Arnsten also said the research she will be conducting with the NIH grant money is new for her field.

With the grant, Arnsten will work to distinguish neurons found in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, an association area, from those found in most sensory areas. For many years, experts believed association and sensory cortices were fundamentally the same, but now Arnsten’s research has shown that neurons in the prefrontal cortex can disconnect and reconnect from their neighboring cells, while neurons in sensory areas cannot.

The Pioneer Award will allow Arnsten to further this research and to see whether the “flexible” neurons in the prefrontal cortex are related to the brain degeneration that occurs in Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.

“Hopefully understanding the unique vulnerability of association areas in the brain will lead to more informed strategies for preventing and treating these disorders,” Arnsten said.

Arnsten said she is proud to be a part of NIH’s “High-Risk, High-Reward” program, because she thinks it is important to support innovation in biomedical research so scientists can continue to “break barriers.”

NIH awarded 81 “High-Risk, High-Reward” grants in 2012.

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