Media Contacts

Julie Kiefer

Associate Director, Science Communications, University of Utah Health
Phone: 801-587-1293

Oct 06, 2020 8:00 AM

The National Institutes of Health has awarded grants to three University of Utah Health scientists through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research (HRHR) Program that funds highly innovative and unusually impactful biomedical or behavioral research proposed by extraordinarily creative scientists.

Jacob George, Ph.D., who will be joining the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation as an assistant professor, received an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award to support proposed research in his new academic home. Brenda Bass, Ph.D., a distinguished professor in biochemistry and a cancer investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, and Nels Elde, Ph.D., an associate professor in human genetics, are co-recipients of an NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award.

“Congratulations to these talented scientists for this well-deserved recognition,” says Associate Vice President for Research for Health Sciences, Willard Dere, M.D., FACP. “It’s exciting to see that they represent three different departments, exemplifying the high-quality research across U of U Health. Their innovative projects have the potential to move their fields in new directions.”

The U of U Health projects supported by the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program focus on building bionic exoskeletons to enhance human function and developing novel tools to combat cancer.

Better Human Function with Bionics - Jacob George, Ph.D.

After a stroke, 80% of patients are left paralyzed on half of their body, an impairment known as hemiparesis. Recovery is long, often not successful, and dependent on expensive equipment that is not available to rural populations. George’s award will leverage new advances in artificial intelligence to better understand how the neuromuscular system recovers from hemiparesis and enable smart bionic exoskeletons that adapt to the patient’s needs. His lab is developing biologically inspired artificial intelligence and brain-machine interfaces to restore or enhance human function. He plans to test his new bionic exoskeleton with patients at the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital with the hope they can use the device to immediately return to their daily activities


Turning the Tables on Tumors - Brenda Bass, Ph.D., Nels Elde, Ph.D.

The animal kingdom may already wield tools to combat cancer, and Bass and Elde, in collaboration with scientists from the Ohio State University and University of Washington, are carrying out a search to find them. They’re pursuing factors that mitigate or activate the body’s first line of defense against viruses—the innate immune response. The idea capitalizes on pioneering research from Bass and colleagues showing that ADARs, enzymes that distinguish “self” from “foe”, prevent the body from attacking itself. Deactivating ADARs in tumor cells has the effect of turning tumors on themselves, triggering cell death. The researchers have created a new term—“Innate Immune Checkpoints (IICs)”—to describe ADARs’ role. Their research banks on the idea that there are more IICs, and their hunt to find them capitalizes on Elde’s expertise in mechanisms of evolution. By finding new IICs, the team hopes to gather more ammunition to use as immunotherapies against cancer.

The projects showcase the spirit of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, in which scientists are encouraged to think “outside the box” and pursue trailblazing ideas that advance knowledge and enhance health.

“The breadth of innovative science put forth by the 2020 cohort of early career and seasoned investigators is impressive and inspiring," said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “I am confident that their work will propel biomedical and behavioral research and lead to improvements in human health.”

NIH issued nine Transformative Research awards, and 13 Early Independence awards for 2020.

  • The NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, supports exceptional junior scientists who have recently received their doctoral degree or completed their medical residency to skip traditional post-doctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions.
  • The NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches and is open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms.

10 Pioneer awards and 53 New Innovator awards were also issued as part of the High-Risk, High-Reward program.

George is the first incoming U of U faculty to receive an Eary Independence award since the funding mechanism began in 2011. Bass and Elde are the second U of U team to receive the Transformative Research award. Jason Sepherd, Ph.D., from the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy earned the award in 2019.

-Vincent Horiuchi contributed to this article. This press release was updated on October 20, 2020.

Research News iii Cancer Neuroscience