Published: Oct. 2, 2018

NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program to fund Sabrina Spencer’s CU Boulder research that could shed light on cancer treatment

Scientists do not fully understand how cells choose between proliferation and quiescence (a state of non-proliferation) but a University of Colorado Boulder biochemist’s novel proposal to study the issue has won the support of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Sabrina Spencer, CU Boulder assistant professor of biochemistry, is one of 58 scientists nationwide to have won an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. Those awards, announced today, are part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, which supports “extraordinarily creative scientists proposing highly innovative research to address major challenges in biomedical research.” Zoe Donaldson, an assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience at CU Boulder, also won a Director's New Innovator Award. (Read more about Donaldson's research.)


Sabrina Spencer

Spencer’s proposal is unconventional because it “challenges textbook dogma,” she said.

Spencer noted that significant scientific research effort in the 1980s and ‘90s was devoted to understanding how cells enter proliferation from a quiescent state induced by cell starvation.  After having reached a well-accepted set of conclusions, researchers subsequently shifted their attention elsewhere, Spencer said.

Today, however, Spencer proposes to revisit some of these conclusions using new cutting-edge tools, including state-of-the-art single-cell technology that enables scientists to measure cellular activity by time-lapse microscopy without starving or otherwise disturbing the cells. She plans to combine her experimental observation with high-powered computational analyses of the time-lapse movies. 

“These technological advances will lead to fundamental knowledge about cell-cycle regulation, while also potentially revealing medically relevant interventions for controlling the proliferation-quiescence decision in cancer,” she writes in her NIH abstract. 

The NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 institutes and centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. 

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program supports ideas with potential for great impact in biomedical research from across the broad scope of the NIH, such as exploring how the brain and immune system communicate with one another, identifying proteins involved in organ-to-organ communication, using breast milk to deliver therapies to infants, and determining the public health consequences of urban growth. 

The program catalyzes scientific discovery by supporting exciting, high-risk research proposals that may struggle in the traditional peer-review process despite their transformative potential. Program applicants are encouraged to pursue creative, trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH mission.

The awards total approximately $282 million over five years, pending available funds. Spencer’s award is $1.5 million. 

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, established in 2007, supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.

Jim Goodrich, professor and chair of the CU Boulder Department of Biochemistry, noted that the Director’s New Innovator Award is a “highly prestigious, major research award” that will allow Spencer to pursue a creative and innovative line of research. 

“This research could enhance the ability to predict and improve the response of cancer cells to drug treatments that block proliferation,” Goodrich said.

Spencer is honored to receive this award and the funding that comes with it. Additionally, she said, “If you look at the past winners of this award, and see where they are now and what they’ve done, it’s a very exciting group of people… The best part will be meeting and exchanging ideas with the other New Innovator Award recipients.”

Spencer holds a PhD in computational and systems biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an MS in human genetics from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and bachelors’ degrees in biology and French language and literature from The George Washington University. 

She joined the CU Boulder faculty in 2014 and is an associate member of the CU Cancer Center and a member of the BioFrontiers Institute.