Two professors win $2.5 million Pioneer Awards

L.A. Cicero

Stanford researchers Thomas Clandinin and Mark Schnitzer each received a 2007 Pioneer Award from the NIH. Each will receive $2.5 million over five years for their work.

The tiny fruit fly's pinpoint-size brain holds an enormous amount of information for those who can decipher it. Proposing novel ways to delve into the workings of these exquisitely small brains has garnered recognition for two Stanford researchers in the form of 2007 Pioneer Awards from the National Institutes of Health.

Thomas Clandinin, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology, and Mark Schnitzer, PhD, assistant professor of biological sciences and of applied physics, each will receive $2.5 million over five years. The awards are designed not to support projects but rather to support highly creative and pioneering people. Although their research interests overlap, the two have been working independently. They plan to collaborate in the future.

The two Stanford winners were announced Sept. 19 along with the 10 other 2007 NIH Director's Pioneer Award recipients from institutions around the nation.

"These are two truly outstanding young investigators who have won the respect of leading scientists for their proposed exciting and innovative research," said Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. "The NIH Director's Pioneer Award is one of the most prestigious indicators of bold and creative research, and has only been awarded to truly rising superstars in science and medicine."

Stanford now has garnered nine of the 47 Pioneer Awards since the program was created four years ago to encourage creative, innovative approaches to major research challenges. Eight of the winners, including Clandinin, are from the medical school. Stanford has received more Pioneer Awards than any other institution.

"We hope that these programs also help remind the scientific community, including its newest members, that we encourage investigators to be bold and 'swing for the fences' with their proposals," said Jeremy Berg, PhD, director of NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which runs the award program.

Clandinin said he was "flabbergasted" when he received the phone call from the NIH telling him he'd won the award. "It didn't sound like a prank call," he said. "But one immediately doubts that this could possibly have been real."

He describes his reaction now as "euphoric," adding, after a laugh, "Truly speaking, it's a life-changing award. It gives you the capacity to do everything that you've always wanted to try and the resources to do it."

For him, that means studying how the fruit fly's brain figures out which way something is moving, by analyzing the pattern of light across the retina over time.

Clandinin said that if he can understand the logic that flies use to extract visual information with their eyes, the same principles could be used to design circuitry for prostheses that could allow blind people to discern things such as color, shape and depth. In other words, it could allow blind people a certain amount of vision. Because the brain's basic visual computations likely make use of algorithms that developed early in the evolution of sight, a fruit fly brain is as good as a human brain, in this instance.

At present, Clandinin observes individual neurons in the brains of single fruit flies, but plans are afoot to collaborate with Schnitzer, the other Pioneer Award winner at Stanford, to use an imaging system Schnitzer proposed to analyze the activity of neurons in many fly brains simultaneously.

"We're going to be developing a novel approach to brain imaging," said Schnitzer. His goal over the next five years is to create a high-tech method of imaging fruit fly brains that could eventually lead to advances in understanding and treating human brain disorders.

With this new ability to observe how neural circuits work in live fruit fly brains, scientists should be better able to understand human brains and the causes of Parkinson's disease, addiction, developmental disorders or other conditions for which there are fruit fly disease models, Schnitzer said.

And going one step further, the new imaging technique could also lead to drug screening in fruit fly brains to assess possible therapeutic benefit for humans.

The imaging technique, which Schnitzer calls "massively parallel brain imaging," will involve intense, high-throughput brain imaging, or really fast imaging of up to 100 live fruit fly brains at the same time, he said. Scientists will image the brains with lasers. "This award will greatly accelerate our research," Schnitzer said.

While much is understood today about how the human brain works, a key missing link in brain research is an understanding of neural circuits, the networks of nerve cells that communicate with each other, he said.

"Neural circuits have been hard to study," Schnitzer said. "There's a lack of approaches to deciphering how circuits work, to study systematically how they function in live brains. This would allow us to perform reverse engineering studies of how the neural circuits work. We will also be able to watch over time how neural circuits form during development."

In announcing the new Pioneer Award winners, the NIH emphasized the benefits of supporting creative, boundary-pushing researchers. "The conceptual and technological breakthroughs that are likely to emerge from their highly innovative approaches to major research challenges could speed progress toward important medical advances," said NIH director Elias Zerhouni, MD.