Top National Institutes of Health prize goes to 3 scientists

Michael Halaas

David Relman, Kwabena Boahen and Karla Kirkegaard each received the NIH’s $2.5 million Pioneer Award.

For the second year in a row, three Stanford University School of Medicine researchers, including one jointly appointed with the School of Engineering, have snagged one of the National Institutes of Health's top prizes: the annual NIH Director's Pioneer Award. The prize provides each winner with $2.5 million over five years to pursue new research directions.

The 2006 recipients from Stanford are Kwabena Boahen, PhD; Karla Kirkegaard, PhD; and David Relman, MD. The 13 winners, selected from a pool of 465 applicants, were announced by the NIH Sept. 19 in Bethesda, Md. With three winners, Stanford has more awardees this year than any other institution—and the most total since the award was established in 2004.

Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, welcomed the news. "I am pleased that since the program started two years ago, Stanford faculty have been selected for seven of the 34 Pioneer Awards, reflecting the excellence and innovative spirit of Stanford and our faculty," he said.

In each of the three years of the award's history, one of Stanford's winners has come from the Department of Bioengineering, which is jointly managed by the schools of engineering and of medicine.

"When Stanford founded its Department of Bioengineering four years ago we envisioned that it would be a place for the brightest minds in the field to tackle important problems at the intersection of the life sciences, medicine and engineering," said James D. Plummer, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering. "We are honored that NIH has recognized a member of our bioengineering faculty with this award for a third consecutive year."

The Pioneer Award funds scientists with creative ideas who propose novel approaches to major challenges in biomedical research. Ben Barres, MD, PhD, professor of neurobiology and of developmental biology, served on the team that reviewed award applications and met with finalists in 2005 and 2006 (he left the room during Stanford applicants' interviews). He praised the philosophy underlying the Pioneer process.

"NIH says, 'Tell us in five pages what you would do if you could do anything you wanted—no holds barred, no strings attached. Tell us the most high-risk, high-impact project you can think of, and we're going to enable you to do it,'" he said. What results is "some of the most creative science imaginable."

One of this year's winners, Boahen, PhD, associate professor of bioengineering, reported that he had been turned down for less competitive awards. "With this one I had to push the envelope even more," he said. "You have to do something wild."

And "wild" is an apt description for what Boahen aims to achieve. In his previous work, he has pilfered from neuroscience's knowledge of the brain to advance the field of computer engineering by designing a blueprint for "brains in silicon."

"Now, what I can do with this award is take the engineering back to neuroscience," he said. His goal is to make the chips programmable and build models so that neuroscientists can better understand the areas they are studying. "I'll be making a 180-degree turn in direction."

Kirkegaard, PhD, professor and chair of microbiology and immunology, also had her winning proposal shot down four times previously. She intends to investigate how the dengue, West Nile, hepatitis C and polio viruses develop drug resistance and how to reduce the frequency of such occurrences.

"I don't know if my research is more innovative than others; we are all doing the best research we can design," said Kirkegaard. "But I am thrilled that the prestige and amount of this award will allow me to help communicate the intricacies of viral drug resistance." She hopes she can provide evidence to persuade drug companies to rethink their approach to designing antiviral drugs.

Relman, MD, associate professor of microbiology and immunology and of medicine, is also using his creativity toward a potentially practical outcome. "My pitch was that if we understand the ecological principles that dictate the structure and behavior of human indigenous microbial communities, besides the intellectual appeal, we might be able to define human health from a novel perspective and improve our clinical management of health and disease," he said.

So little information exists about what role micro-organisms play inside the body that it's hard even to predict what he might see. "These are broad-scale hypothesis-generating studies, that draw together disparate disciplines and technologies, and are usually difficult to fund" he said. "This grant allows us to explore ideas that couldn't be addressed in any real depth with a traditional funding mechanism."

Although the Pioneer Award was established only three years ago, it has become one of the most prestigious recognitions by the NIH. "Even more important is its focus on fostering innovative work in new areas by investigators of exceptional promise," Pizzo noted.

NIH director Elias Zerhouni, MD, called the Pioneer Award "an innovation in its own right. It is one way we are exploring of funding unconventional ideas that are promising but might not fare well in the traditional peer-review system."

Kirkegaard added that she appreciates the support from the NIH especially at a time when the organization is so strapped for funds.

"It is very encouraging that they are funding this type of work," agreed Relman. "The program is a shining light at the NIH."