Spurring Innovation

$14M in dean’s grants awarded to boost scientific collaborations

Scientist with mask & gloves pouring liquid into a test tube

From probing bacterial pathogenesis to exploring the mechanisms and functions of dopamine coding, 23 new collaborative research projects are being funded to boost partnerships among Blavatnik Institute departments on the Quad and with HMS affiliates, thanks to Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley’s new innovation grants program.

Two of the recipients, Gordon Fishell, HMS professor of neurobiology, and Steven McCarroll, the Dorothy and Milton Flier Professor of Biomedical Science and Genetics, will be studying the developmental origins of cell diversity in the mammalian forebrain.

The lessons that are emerging from our shared effort promise to be transformative for understanding brain development, evolution and disease,” Fishell said. “The Dean’s Initiative [funding] provided the essential resources for us to fully make this collaboration a reality.” 

Designed to foster new discovery science, technology and development projects as well as studies that work to improve quality, costs and access to medical care, the first round of funding awarded $14 million through the Innovation Grants in the Basic and Social Sciences program.  

Both Fishell and McCarroll said the funding provides opportunities for collaboration, one of the main objectives behind the initiative. 

“In this work together we hope to understand connections among brain development, evolution and disease in new ways made possible by single-cell analysis,” said McCarroll. “Since Gord [Fishell] arrived at Harvard Medical School, my lab has relished the interactions with his lab and their deep understanding of brain development and the biology of interneurons.”

 “The Dean’s Initiative Award allows us to quickly escalate these interactions into a deep and meaningful collaboration. We are very grateful for this support,” he added.

“It has been gratifying to see the tremendous response we’ve had to this initiative,” said Daley. “The proposals were impressive in their scope, and I am pleased that we will be able to provide this added support for our faculty.”

Awards were announced to recipients in July after a six-month submission and review process.  Forty-six letters of interest were received, and 32 were invited to submit proposals. All of the proposals were evaluated based on scientific criteria, collaboration, innovation and potential to lead to follow-on funding within 24 months.

"The proposals we received were, uniformly, of extremely high quality—reflecting the exceptional research base we are lucky enough to have at HMS but also the excitement generated by the call for these collaborative innovation grants,” said review committee co-chair Clifford Tabin, the George Jacob and Jacqueline Hazel Leder Professor of Genetics and head of the Department of Genetics. 

“There will be additional opportunities to apply for such grants in the future,” he said, “and we hope that those individuals we were unable to fund this round will reapply. Ideally we would have liked to have been able to support all of them."

There will be another opportunity for candidates to submit requests for proposals during this academic year, and several more calls for proposals are anticipated in the coming years. 

A. Sloan Devlin, assistant professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology, will be working with Jun Huh, assistant professor of microbiology and immunobiology, on a proposal to study immunomodulatory metabolites from human gut bacteria. 

These Dean's grants address a significant challenge that many investigators face: how to obtain funding for an exciting, important, innovative idea that is in its early stages, before enough data have been gathered to apply for full federal or foundation-supported funding. These grants help to fill that crucial gap,” said Devlin.

“As an early career investigator, this funding has the power to be transformative for my research,” Devlin added. “Sometimes it's difficult to obtain funding from external agencies in the early days of a project. This funding will allow us to jump-start our collaborative research project with Jun Huh's lab and advance it to a stage where it will be extremely competitive for an external grant.”

The grants are awarded for up to $150,000 per PI per year, direct costs, for two years. A third year of funding may be awarded contingent on success in the first two years.  A key indicator of success will be prospects for successful follow-on grant funding for the project from the National Institutes of Health or another external funding source after the third year, according to the grant parameters published online. 

Additionally, in all cases, the lead PI must be an HMS ladder faculty member with her or his primary laboratory within the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School . Collaborative projects from PIs and co-PIs within the same HMS department, single-PI applications, and applications with one or more co-PIs from other Harvard schools or HMS-affiliated institutions will also be considered. 

Especially encouraged are applications to boost existing projects to the point that they are competitive for external, full-IDC-bearing funding by the end of the second year.

This year’s grant recipients and projects are listed below:

New microscopy to study mechanisms of notch signaling         

PI: Stephen Blacklow, Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology       

Co-PI: Tomas Kirchhausen, Cell Biology, Boston Children’s Hospital

Neural control of infection responses and sickness behavior   

PI: Isaac Chiu, Microbiology and Immunobiology                             

Co-PI: Stephen Liberles, Cell Biology

A novel method to define the role of genetic sex in neural circuit function  

PI: Sandeep Robert Datta, Neurobiology           

Co-PI: Bernardo Sabatini, Neurobiology

Immunomodulatory metabolites from human gut bacteria      

PI:  A. Sloan Devlin, Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology            

Co-PI: Jun Huh, Microbiology and Immunobiology

Representation and use of uncertainty in the Drosophilanavigational system                                                 

PI: Jan Drugowitsch, Neurobiology                       

Co-PI: Rachel Wilson, Neurobiology

Proteasome regulation and the ubiquitin code                               

PI: Daniel Finley, Cell Biology                                  

Co-PI: Ying Lu, Systems Biology

Developmental origins of cell diversity in the mammalian forebrain               

PI: Gordon Fishell, Neurobiology                           

Co-PI: Steven McCarroll, Genetics

Understanding the idiosyncratic performance of the generic pharmaceutical market                                  

PI: Richard Frank, Health Care Policy                   

Co-PI: Thomas McGuire, Health Care Policy

Inhibition of malaria parasite invasion of erythrocytes by ibudilast and ibudilast-like small molecules        

PI: David Golan, Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology                   

Co-PI: Mihaela Gadjeva, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Contribution of peripheral mechanoreceptor subtypes to the functional organization of somatosensory cortex      

PI: Christopher Harvey, Neurobiology                 

Co-PI: David Ginty, Neurobiology

Layer specific neuron-astrocyte crosstalk during cortical circuit assembly    

PI: Corey Harwell, Neurobiology                            

Co-PI: Wei-Chung Lee, BCH, Neurobiology

Bacterial Pathogenesis Initiative at Harvard   

PI: Darren Higgins, Microbiology and Immunobiology                   

Co-PIs:, Marcia Goldberg, Massachusetts General Hospital; Jonathan Kagan, Boston Children’s Hospital; Eric Rubin, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Michael Starnbach, Microbiology and Immunobiology

Mechanisms and functions of rapid dopamine coding                 

PI: Pascal Kaeser, Neurobiology                             

Co-PIs: John Assad, Neurobiology and Peng Yin, Systems Biology

Role of the Hippo pathway in tissue regeneration                         

PI: Marc Kirschner, Systems Biology                     

Co-PI: Fernando Camargo, SCRB, Boston Children’s Hospital

New molecular tools for the study of herpesviral latency          

PI: David Knipe, Microbiology and Immunobiology                         

Co-PI: Donald Coen, Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

The mechanism of pathway choice in DNA double strand break repair          

PI: Joseph Loparo, Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology              

Co-PI: Johannes Walter, Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

Combining iPSC biology and electronic health records to personalize treatments for neurological disorders               

PI: Lee Rubin, Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology                          

Co-PI: Isaac Kohane, Biomedical Informatics

Nutrient sensing and spore germination          

PI: David Rudner, Microbiology and Immunobiology                      

Co-PIs: Andrew Kruse, Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology and Debora Marks, Systems Biology

Seeing in dark places: probing bacterial polysaccharide regulation in the mammalian gut using engineered livingbiosensors

PI: Pamela Silver, Systems Biology                        

Co-PI: Dennis Kasper, Microbiology and Immunobiology

Regulatory T cell control of stem/progenitor cells during tissue regeneration                                                  

PI: Amy Wagers, Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology                    

Co-PIs: Ya-Chieh Hsu, Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology; Diane Mathis, Microbiology and Immunobiology

DNA-corralled nanodiscs for studies of large membrane proteins and their complexes                               

PI: Gerhard Wagner, Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology         

Co-PI: William Shih, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Cryo-EM analysis of a mammalian circadian clock complex      

PI: Charles Weitz, Neurobiology                             

Co-PI: Alan Brown, Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

Mass spectrometry metabolomics in brain slice with time- and cell-type-resolution                                     

PI: Gary Yellen, Neurobiology                                 

Co-PI: Nathalie Agar, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

 Image credit: iStock