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News from UC Davis Health System

News from UC Davis Health System

NEWS | September 20, 2011

Three UC Davis researchers win prestigious NIH awards

Editor's note:

Select the links to download high-resolution photographs of the three researchers.

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

The National Institutes of Health on Tuesday named three UC Davis researchers recipients of highly competitive awards designed to encourage innovative, high-risk research and accelerate the translation of science into improved health.

Reflecting the breadth and high caliber of research under way at UC Davis, the multi-year grants will allow the three recipients to further investigate the healing power of stem cell ribonucleic acid (RNA), the role other viruses play in the spread of HIV, and the auto-immune response in patients with the often fatal disease scleroderma.

Dr. Hildreth © UC Regents
James E.K. Hildreth

James E.K. Hildreth, dean of the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences, who has a pending joint appointment to the UC Davis School of Medicine, was honored with the NIH Director's Pioneer Award; Jan Nolta, director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, received a Transformative Research Project Grant (RO1) Award; and Emanual Maverakis, assistant professor of dermatology, received the NIH Director's New Innovator Award.

"This is confirmation, once again, of the excellence of our faculty, from established researchers to scientists at the start of their careers, and of the depth and strength of our medical and biological research programs," UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi said. "The NIH is funding UC Davis to do research that will have a real-world impact on health around the globe."

The NIH Director's Award programs are designed to reinvigorate and advance science and medicine by enabling investigators to pursue entirely new directions in research, with an emphasis on risk taking and innovation.

"These awards reflect the transformative nature of our work here at UC Davis Health System, where we envision creating a healthier world through bold innovation, and I am so pleased that these three exceptional scientists received NIH's highest recognition to pursue creative approaches to major challenges in biomedical research," said Claire Pomeroy, UC Davis vice chancellor for Human Health Sciences and dean of UC Davis School of Medicine. "By supporting such unique perspectives and abilities, the National Institutes of Health positions visionary UC Davis scientists to develop high-impact therapies."

Hildreth is the recipient of a five-year, $3.85 million Pioneer Award, a grant intended to support scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering -- and possibly transforming -- approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. Hildreth will explore the hypothesis that other viruses are contributing to the high prevalence of HIV in certain parts of the world. For instance, young women in some countries are exhibiting much higher rates of HIV than can be explained by their behavior, environment or the infection rate of their partners.

Jan Nolta © UC Regents
Jan Nolta

"The length of the award is particularly significant because collaborative translational studies can take much longer than laboratory-based studies," said Hildreth, who will work with scientific teammates in the United States and Africa. "It gives us the time and resources to test a high-risk, high-impact idea with very important implications for our understanding of HIV."

Nolta, one of the nation's leading stem cell researchers, will receive $2.75 million over five years to explore the mechanism by which mesenchymal stem cells isolated from human bone marrow and fat can transfer microRNA and other factors into cells within damaged tissue -- and how that process can be harnessed to heal people.

"We call these cells paramedic cells, and this grant will help us investigate exactly how they do their job, which could ultimately have a significant impact on patient care," said Nolta, a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine. Nolta said the principal application she and her team are pursuing is the revascularization and healing of damaged tissue in the brain and limbs.

"What's wonderful about these Transformative Research Awards," she said, "is that they allow scientists to pursue an idea that is unconventional -- even a bit of a leap -- and do some real cutting-edge work."

Maverakis' New Innovator Award is distinctive because it is designed to support creative investigators with highly innovative research ideas at an early stage of their careers. Maverakis, a UC Davis faculty member since October 2007 and the recipient of several other major young investigator awards, said the grant came at a fortuitous time.

Emanuel Maverakis © UC Regents
Emanual Maverakis

"Research funding is becoming increasingly challenging to attract, so I feel very fortunate to have received this endorsement and grant support from the NIH," he said.

Maverakis will use the five-year, $2.3 million award to characterize the immune response in scleroderma to find effective therapies for this devastating disease. His group has devised novel strategies to isolate individual pathogenic immune cells from these patients.

The three grants are part of the NIH annual Common Fund Awards, which aim to encourage investigators to explore bold ideas that have the potential to catapult fields forward and speed the translation of research into improved health. The Common Fund was enacted into law by Congress as part of the 2006 NIH Reform Act to support cross-cutting, trans-NIH programs.

About UC Davis
For more than 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has more than 32,000 students, more than 2,500 faculty and more than 21,000 staff, an annual research budget that exceeds $678 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges -- Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools -- Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing. For more information, visit www.ucdavis.edu.

About UC Davis Health System
UC Davis Health System is advancing the health of patients everywhere by providing excellent patient care, conducting groundbreaking research, fostering innovative, interprofessional education, and creating dynamic, productive partnerships with the community. The academic health system includes one of the nation's best medical schools, a 645-bed acute-care teaching hospital, an 800-member physician's practice group and the new Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing. It is home to a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, an international neurodevelopmental institute, a stem cell institute and a comprehensive children's hospital. Other nationally prominent centers focus on advancing telemedicine, improving vascular care, eliminating health disparities and translating research findings into new treatments for patients. Together, they make UC Davis a hub of innovation that is transforming health for all. For more information, visit healthsystem.ucdavis.edu.