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Four OHSU Vollum Institute scientists win prestigious NIH awards

Awards given for “transformative research” and for exceptional junior scientist

Four scientists at Oregon Health & Science University's Vollum Institute have won National Institutes of Health "High Risk-High Reward Research Awards," given to a handful of scientists in the United States who are doing exceptionally innovative work in biomedical research.

The 2013 awards to the four scientists mark the first time any OHSU scientist has won a High Risk-High Reward Research award.

The Vollum's Gail Mandel, Ph.D.; John Adelman, Ph.D.; and Paul Brehm, Ph.D.; teamed up with Joshua Rosenthal, Ph.D.; from the University of Puerto Rico-Medical Sciences campus, to earn one of 10 Transformative Research Awards — one of the four High Risk-High Reward award categories — for their project to develop a novel strategy to recode molecules in cells to fix mutations in faulty genes.

The Transformative Research Awards promote interdisciplinary approaches and are open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that has the potential "to create or overturn fundamental paradigms," according to the NIH.

The Vollum's Isabelle Baconguis, Ph.D., was one of 15 recipients of an Early Independence Award, another High Risk-High Reward award category. That award is given to exceptional junior scientists who have recently received their doctoral degrees or finished medical residency. The award is meant to allow scientists to skip traditional postdoctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions. Baconguis is studying how a group of proteins called ion channels function as regulators in the human body.

"I was actually not surprised by the Transformative Research Award. This was an extremely innovative project by a team of our most accomplished investigators," said Richard Goodman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Vollum Institute and professor of cell and developmental biology and biochemistry and molecular biology in the OHSU School of Medicine. "This group should be competitive with scientists at the top programs in the country.”

Regarding the Baconguis award, Goodman added: "Our faculty debated for hours, however, about whether anyone should apply for the Early Independence Award — whether someone can move into an independent position directly from graduate school, whether our Neuroscience Graduate Program was as strong as the best programs elsewhere, whether the Vollum could provide as supportive an environment as the types of institutions that typically get these awards. The fact that Isabelle competed so successfully — her application received a perfect score — reflects extremely well on our training program, on her mentor, Eric Gouaux, and on the research atmosphere for young scientists in the Vollum. I look at Isabelle receiving this award as one of the most satisfying accomplishments of our program over the past two decades."

The NIH gave 78 High Risk-High Reward grant awards this year in four categories. Total funding for the awards is about $123 million.

Mandel said her group hopes to use the NIH grant award to "develop an innovative way to correct disease-causing mutations directly in the unhealthy cells. Our strategy has the potential to fix the mutations without changing the normal levels of the molecule inside the cell. This is important because either too little or too much of some proteins causes disease."

Meanwhile, Baconguis said she and her research colleagues will use the NIH award to focus "on understanding how a group of proteins — deemed ion channels — function as key regulators of salt balance in the human body. By using structural techniques that allow us to visualize these ion channels at high resolution, we will provide blueprints for the rational design of novel therapeutic agents to combat diseases that include cystic fibrosis and hypertension — the latter of which afflicts 1 billion people worldwide."

The Vollum Institute is a privately endowed research institute at OHSU dedicated to basic research that will lead to new treatments for neurological and psychiatric diseases. Vollum scientists have been pioneers in the study of cellular signaling, neuronal development, gene regulation and the neurobiology of disease.

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