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Carl Novina, MD, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Cancer Immunology and AIDS at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is one of 10 scientists chosen to receive a 2014 National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award, which funds bold and innovative research proposals to attack challenging biomedical problems.
In an announcement on Monday, the NIH said it was awarding a total of 85 grants under its High Risk-High Reward program supported by the NIH Common Fund.
The Pioneer Awards were established 10 years ago to encourage the kind of forward-looking research that scientists complained was hard to get funded under the traditional NIH grant structure. It is designed to support "a small number of investigators of exceptional creativity who propose bold and highly innovative new research approaches that have the potential to produce a major impact" in the fields of biomedicine and behavioral research, according to the NIH.
Novina will receive $500,000 in direct costs per year for five years.
"It's certainly a big honor to have received this award," said Novina, who is also affiliated with Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. "This award gives me more flexibility to take scientific risks and to take my research in new directions."
His proposal involves developing a "next-generation" form of gene modification aimed initially at treating sickle cell anemia. Novina believes the technique, called "epigenetic reprogramming," may be "the next frontier in gene therapy and could be used in cancer, neurological disorders, and autoimmune diseases.
Whereas genetics refers to the sequence of genes in the genome, epigenetics refers to how genetic information is accessed. Epigenetic modifications determine how genes are expressed without altering the DNA code of the gene itself. Epigenetic changes can occur when groups of carbon and hydrogen atoms, called methyl groups, are added to or removed from DNA. Adding methyl groups to DNA often turns off genes while removing methyl groups from DNA often turns them on. Such changes are found in cancer and other diseases. Novina says he is creating tools for adding or removing methyl groups at any specific site on a DNA molecule as a new form of treatment.