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University of Utah Health Neuroscientist Receives Transformative Research Award


Jason Shepherd, Ph.D., Associate Professor of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at University of Utah Health and Jon M. Huntsman Presidential Chair at the University of Utah has received the National Institutes of Health Director's Transformative Research Award. The prestigious award promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches to research that could create or challenge existing paradigms.

Shepherd's award comes from the NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Research program that catalyzes scientific discovery by supporting highly innovative research proposals that, due to their inherent risk, may struggle in the traditional peer review process despite their transformative potential. Program applicants are encouraged to think outside-the-box and to pursue trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH mission.

"Each year, I look forward to seeing the creative approaches these researchers take to solve tough problems in biomedical and behavioral research," said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. "I am confident the 2019 cohort of awardees has the potential to advance our mission of enhancing health through their groundbreaking studies."

Research in the Shepherd lab focuses on elucidating how the brain stores information from the molecular level through in vivo neuronal networks, and how these processes go awry in neurological disorders.

Recent studies from the group has led to a paradigm shift in the way scientists view mechanisms of cognition and how cells signal to each other. Looking specifically at Arc, a neuronal gene critical for long-term memory, the Shepherd lab recently discovered that Arc has surprising similarity to retroviruses and is able to form viral-like capsids capable of transporting RNA.

With funding from the award, Shepherd will collaborate with a team of neuroscientists and virologists to determine what genetic messages are transferred between neurons in Arc particles, how these particles enter "target" neurons to deliver their RNA cargo to cell cytoplasm, and how delivery of this cargo influences the neuronal and synaptic processes that underlie memory and cognition. The research promises to advance our understanding of information encoding and storage in the brain and provide new insights into neurological disorders.

The National Institutes of Health awarded 93 grants through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program totaling approximately $267 million over five years, pending available funds. In addition to 9 Transformative Research awards, NIH issued 11 Pioneer awards, 60 New Innovator awards, and 13 Early Independence awards for 2019.