Two UC Berkeley assistant professors – Jacob Corn and Hernan Garcia – have received New Innovator Awards from the National Institutes of Health that provide $1.5 million over five years to pursue high-risk, high-reward work that could have implications for human health.
The awards are among 89 announced today (Oct. 5) “to highly creative and exceptional scientists with bold approaches to major challenges in biomedical research,” according to the NIH announcement.
The New Innovator program “supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.”
“I continually point to this program as an example of the creative and revolutionary research NIH supports,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “The quality of the investigators and the impact their research has on the biomedical field is extraordinary.”
Corn, an assistant adjunct professor of molecular and cell biology and scientific director for biomedicine of the Innovative Genomics Institute, will use CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to explore how cells recycle damaged organs, such as mitochondria or the endoplasmic reticulum.
Called autophagy – basically, self-eating – the process is well-known for proteins, but not for much larger “organelles” inside the cell. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for discovering how autophagy works, but organelle autophagy was only recently noted. Dysfunction in organelle autophagy has been implicated in diverse diseases, including neurodegeneration, lysosomal storage disorders and cancer.
“We will use a combination of next-generation genome editing, cellular biochemistry and imaging to uncover the players involved in initiating and executing organelle autophagy programs, which could suggest new strategies to treat diseases associated with improper organelle autophagy,” Corn said.
Garcia, an assistant professor of molecular and cell biology and of physics, combines physics with synthetic biology to understand how cells determine their fate, that is, what genes are activated as a cell specializes to become a nerve cell, for example, rather than a liver cell.
Correlating gene activation inside the nucleus of a cell with that cell’s eventual fate has been hampered by the fact that researchers mostly look at cells in dead animals. Garcia proposes to create new technologies to fluorescently label specialized proteins that turn on genes – so-called transcription factors – so that they can be followed in real time in living fruit fly embryos. He plans to use cutting-edge lattice light-sheet microscopy to image how single molecules of these transcription factors bind to the DNA to exert their regulatory function.
“Only by enabling this real-time description of gene regulatory programs during early development can we understand and predict how a DNA sequence dictates cellular commitment and how, when regulation goes awry, developmental defects and states of unchecked cellular proliferation ensue,” Garcia said.