Three Mass General investigators were named NIH Director's New Innovators for their pursuit of unconventional ideas and bold breakthroughs.

Creativity is usually highly valued because it is often the bold new ideas that lead to the most popular trends and the biggest breakthroughs. But being a bold innovator also comes with significant risk, which can be viewed unfavorably in the scientific community when considering funding.

Thankfully, there are certain programs that have been created to recognize this innovation conundrum and support researchers with unconventional ideas.

In 2011, the Mass General Research Institute created the MGH Research Scholars program to provide flexible funding for early- and mid-career researchers in pursuit of promising and leading-edge discoveries. The program has awarded 60 MGH Research Scholar grants to date.

On the national level, as part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award supports exceptionally creative early career investigators who propose innovative, high-impact projects in the biomedical, behavioral or social sciences within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mission.

This year, three Mass General investigators were named NIH Director’s New Innovators for their projects to promote coma recovery, improve kidney replacement therapy and make cancer immunotherapy safer.  Below are profiles of the Mass General investigators and their research.

Brian Edlow, MD
Brian Edlow, MD

Brain Injury Recovery Innovator

Brian Edlow, MD, is a clinician-investigator who focuses on coma recovery and neuroimaging.

His NIH Director’s New Innovator Award project will establish the Connectome-Based Clinical Trial Platform (CCTP), a novel paradigm for developing targeted therapies to promote early recovery of consciousness in patients with acute severe traumatic brain injury.

A new treatment that promotes early recovery of consciousness in the intensive care unit (ICU) would benefit patients and families by reducing the likelihood of premature withdrawal of life-sustaining therapy, facilitating self-expression, enabling autonomous decision-making, decreasing ICU complications related to immobility, and increasing access to post-ICU rehabilitative care.

“I am deeply grateful to the NIH for this Director’s New Innovator grant, which will help my lab bring new therapies to patients with severe brain injuries in the intensive care unit,” Dr. Edlow said.

Ryuji Morizane, MD, PhD
Ryuji Morizane, MD, PhD

Improving Kidney Replacement Therapy

Ryuji Morizane, MD, PhD, is a principal investigator researching stem cell differentiation and kidney regenerative medicine.

Dr. Morizane’s NIH Director’s New Innovator Award will help support his project developing mini-kidneys grown using tissue cultures made from human stem cells, also called kidney organoids.

The ultimate goal is to create artificial kidneys as a novel form of renal replacement therapy. If researchers were able to perfect these kidney organoids, it could help save the lives of many patients struggling with chronic kidney disease, end-stage kidney disease or those in need of a transplant.

“I am deeply honored to receive this NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which will further advance the technology to generate artificial kidneys as a novel form of renal replacement therapy,” Dr. Morizane said.

Making Cancer Immunotherapy Safer

Alexandra-Chloe Villani, PhD, is a genomicist and immunologist working on gaining a deeper understanding of human immune response regulation as a foundation for deciphering human traits and diseases.

Alexandra-Chloe Villani, PhD
Alexandra-Chloe Villani, PhD

Immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI) immunotherapies, which harness the human body’s own defense mechanisms to kill cancer cells, have revolutionized the treatment of solid cancers by changing the prognosis for many patients, but they also can sometimes leads to immune-related adverse events (irAEs) where the body attacks its own healthy cells.

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award will help to support Dr. Villani’s project to identify therapeutic solutions to prevent or better clinically manage irAEs.

With this project and award, Dr. Villani hopes to identify culprit cellular components that could be therapeutically targeted through primary prevention screening tests, or after the onset of irAEs. Findings from her research could be greatly beneficial in improving patient care for all cancer types that are therapeutically managed by ICI immunotherapy.

“I am honored and thrilled to be an NIH Director’s New Innovator recipient,” Dr. Villani said. “This funding will allow me to take bigger risks in tackling the most important biomedical challenges affecting cancer patients.”

This story originally appeared on the Mass General Research Institute Blog

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