Three Innovative Researchers Awarded

UC Irvine joins UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and Stanford University as the only institutions to have three recipients of the National Institutes of Health’s 2013 New Innovator Awards. The award supports the projects of early-career researchers with the most potential to transform their scientific fields and improve human health.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Aaron Palmer Esser-Kahn, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior Sunil P. Gandhi, Ph.D. and Assistant Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology Ali Mortazavi, Ph.D. were this year’s UCI recipients of the award.
Dr. Esser-Kahn’s research lab concentrates on dendritic cells, cells that, as put in his words, “are looking for things that aren’t supposed to be in your body.” These cells are triggered by vaccines, and the most effective ones trigger several receptors in a sequenced pattern.
“What we propose to do is to take all of the individual elements that are known of the viruses to build them back up into units of code and test them as vaccines,” Dr. Esser-Kahn said. “[By doing this], we’re able to understand which elements are really important and how that influences the response.”
Through this research, Esser-Kahn’s research lab hopes to take previously ineffective vaccines and better code them to enhance their effectiveness.
Dr. Gandhi’s research focuses on understanding plasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire and reorganize itself. “I’m working on trying to understand how it is that the young brain is particularly plastic and how we might be able to exploit those mechanisms and use them to bring back juvenile levels of plasticity in a targeted way to the adult brain,” he said.
To do this, he is exploring how inhibitory neurons that release a neurotransmitter molecule called GABA can reactivate juvenile patterns of plasticity when it is transplanted into an older brain. He said, “So far, what we’re seeing is that when these cells are left to develop and make their connections in the host brain circuitry, they bring back the plasticity of the more youthful brain.”
This research has the potential to help stroke patients and patients of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. He points out that the funding is very flexible because he does not need to decide in advance what needs to be spent on, something very different from the traditional major research grants from the NIH.
“I think the fact that UCI scientists have received three of these high risk, high reward research awards makes clear that UCI is such an excellent research environment for young scientists,” he said.
Dr. Mortazavi’s research looks into what controls gene expression across different species: humans, dogs, mice and horses. He chose to study stem cells in particular because he felt like they would serve as a good comparative model across multiple species.
“I’m interested in the way that genes are regulated, [which] involves actually the shape of the DNA as it is folded inside of the nucleus. So I’m interested in understanding whether that, those 3-D configurations, are conserved or not, and then watch that over time as they differentiate these cells into neurons and muscle cells,” he said.
His research can be applied to personalized medicine, a class he teaches during the winter quarter. Personalized medicine uses sequencing and other technologies to create a specific profile of a patient’s health that can be used to find medicine best suited for the patient.
“These awards are nice [because] they are for five years and they give us some stability,” Dr. Mortazavi said. “And it’s actually a validation in a sense that NIH thinks that what we’re doing is worthwhile.”
Each awarded researcher will receive $2.3 million for five years to fund their research projects. However, as the NIH is a federal agency, the government shutdown has proved to be inconvenient in regards to this grant.
“[The shutdown] has been detrimental. It’s taken them a lot of time to make the decision because of the funding this year, and this shutdown is really impacting our ability to communicate with the people we need to communicate with to move things forward. They tried to get us the money just before this would happen, anticipating the worst  this is the fastest administrative thing I’ve seen, so that was really fantastic. Now, we can’t really communicate with them and exchange ideas and get future direction. We have all this energy and all this momentum, but we can’t talk to them,” Dr. Esser-Kahn said. “It’s somewhat limiting, that’s the only frustrating thing. But obviously, the award is great and tremendously valuable.”
Only a total of 41 researchers out of approximately 600 applicants were selected to be honored by this award.
“It’s rare that an institution is home to more than one New Innovator recipient in one year, and that UC Irvine has three is a testament to the robust environment that encourages our early-career research faculty members,” Vice Chancellor of Research John Hemminger said. “Aaron, Sunil and Ali are exceptional scientists, and we are proud that the NIH, in this age of sequestration, has chosen to support their visionary work.”