University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

NIH Fosters High-Risk, High-Reward Innovation at UCSF

Five Win Award Funding to Study Lung Cancer, Asthma, Schizophrenia and Other Areas

By Jeffrey Norris | | September 13, 2012

NIH Fosters High-Risk, High-Reward Innovation at UCSF

Trever G. Bivona, M.D., Ph.D.

Biomedical researchers at UCSF have won five of 51 prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator awards for high-risk, high-reward research, each receiving up to $1.5 million over five years.

In their investigations, the UCSF researchers will be creatively applying or developing new technologies to probe lung cancer; asthma; schizophrenia; inborn blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia and “bubble boy disease;” and the couplings of proteins that drive all cellular and intercellular actions within the organism, in health and in disease.
The five UCSF awardees announced Thursday by the NIH are:
  • Christopher D.C. Allen, PhD
    Project Title: Cellular Interactions in Asthma
  • Trever G. Bivona, MD, PhD
    Project Title: Discovery of Rational Companion Therapeutic Targets to Optimize Cancer Treatment
  • Xiaokun Shu, PhD
    Project Title: New Principle-Based Technologies for identifying Transient Protein Interactions
  • Vikaas S. Sohal, MD, PhD
    Project Title: Reverse Engineering the Prefrontal Microcircuit
  • Ann C. Zovein, MD
    Project Title: Engineering Human Endothelium for Hematopoietic Stem Cell Production

The researchers — who recently began their faculty careers — represent continued success among young UCSF scientists.

UCSF's Record of Success in NIH Funding
UCSF received more research funds — $532.8 million — from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) than any other public institution in 2011 and ranked second among all institutions nationwide. In 2010, UCSF also was the largest public recipient, with $475.4 million in funding.
According to the NIH, the goal of the award, established in 2007, is to support “exceptionally innovative” research among scientists who are just beginning to establish their own labs. The anticipated result is the more rapid generation of scientific breakthroughs that are quickly translated into better health for patients.
The New Innovator award initiative is part of the NIH Common Fund’s High Risk-High Reward program, and supports investigators who are within 10 years of having received their final academic degree or clinical residency but have not yet received a major NIH grant.
“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,” said NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD.
Visualizing Inflammatory Cells in Asthma
Asthma is becoming increasingly common worldwide, especially among children, according to Christopher Allen, PhD, the first Sandler-Newmann Foundation UCSF Fellow in Asthma Research.
In response to triggers such as pollen, mold, viral infection or even cold air, airways within the lungs of a person with asthma constrict as inflammatory cells chronically infiltrate. The disease can be fatal.
“These inflammatory cells have been shown to make an important contribution to disease pathology, yet despite what we have learned, current treatments for the disease remain inadequate,” Allen said.
In the past, knocking out genes and using inhibitors of inflammatory molecules produced by cells in the lungs of mice with asthma provided pieces of the puzzle. Now with the support of the New Innovator award, Allen is turning to the microscope to learn more about how asthma arises and persists. Allen is at the forefront in applying a cutting-edge technology called two-photon microscopy to the study of disease.
Allen will track the movement of inflammatory cells within the lung in a way that could not be done before, and he expects to make new discoveries about important cellular and molecular interactions within lung structures in asthma.
Overcoming Lung Cancer Tumors that Resist Treatment
Medical oncologist Trever Bivona, MD, PhD, is working to develop and validate a new research approach to study how lung cancers respond differently to treatment in different patients, due to different patterns of gene activation and protein production in the tumor cells that can adapt over time during therapy. He hopes to make advances in tailoring treatments more precisely to individual tumors and developing treatment strategies for overcoming the problem of drug resistance that currently limits even our best cancer therapies.
Bivona will apply the new technical innovations to define the mechanisms through which genes and proteins act through signaling networks to evade even newer, targeted therapies. He’ll develop and test new ideas for blocking these key signaling pathways in tumor cells with rational combinations of drugs, similar to the way HIV now is targeted successfully in patients.
"Our overall goal is to characterize the molecular determinants of response to targeted therapies," Bivona said. "We want to design effective combination therapies that strike against the most critical factors promoting tumor cell growth and that prevent or overcome resistance to treatment, thus improving the survival of patients with lung cancer and other cancers."