Published: Oct. 4, 2022

National Institutes of Health funds CU Boulder researchers’ work on mental illnesses, HIV vaccines and improved cancer treatments

Three scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder have won prestigious, High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program awards, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today.

The awards to Lisa Hiura, Sara Sawyer and Aaron Whiteley are among 103 grants nationwide, totaling more than $200 million over five years. Hiura, Sawyer and Whiteley won support for their respective research probing mental illnesses that appear in adolescence, facilitating better and faster development of HIV vaccines, and understanding the connection between the gut microbiome and the efficacy of cancer treatments.

“The science advanced by these researchers is poised to blaze new paths of discovery in human health,” said Lawrence A. Tabak, DDS, PhD, the director of NIH.

“This unique cohort of scientists will transform what is known in the biological and behavioral world. We are privileged to support this innovative science.”

Lisa Hiura

At the top of the page: Sara Sawyer. Above: Lisa Hiura.

Hiura, a postdoctoral fellow in molecular biology, has won the Director’s Early Independence Award, which supports “outstanding junior scientists with the intellect, scientific creativity, drive and maturity bypass the traditional postdoctoral training period to launch independent research careers.” The five-year grant carries $1.25 million in funding.

Hiura plans to study a mechanism that plays a crucial role in people’s ability to form close bonds with loved ones. When that mechanism, called the mesolimbic dopamine system, functions atypically, neuropsychiatric diseases can arise during adolescence, Hiura notes.

Social experiences play a crucial role in brain development, says Hiura, adding that “the ways in which changing adolescent reward circuits are shaped by early social interactions to facilitate adult bonding remains unknown.”

Hiura plans to “leverage the use of the socially monogamous prairie vole system to discover the activational, functional and transcriptional features of dopaminergic reward circuit development, furthering our understanding of the pathophysiology of diseases that involve impaired social bonding behaviors.”

Hiura said she was honored to be selected, adding: “It is an incredible opportunity to immediately begin pursuing my research questions on the developmental origins of social bonding. Recent advances in our ability to observe and probe brain function makes this an especially exciting time to be in social neuroscience. With this grant, my lab will be able to tap into the molecular processes that transform our early experiences into the neural foundations of our psychosocial health and wellbeing.”

Sawyer, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, has won a Pioneer Award, which supports scientists with “outstanding records of creativity pursuing new research directions to develop pioneering approaches to major challenges in biomedical, social science and behavioral research.” It is a five-year, $3.5 million grant.

Sawyer and her team will be developing a new model organism that will facilitate better and faster development of HIV vaccines. Sawyer has been working on this breakthrough for a decade and says, “Just like young people today, I grew up in the era of an emerging pandemic. I remember thinking as a teenager that I wanted to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and that determination has only intensified with time.”

HIV has killed 36 million people, and another 37 million people are living with chronic infection. Even today, almost 2,000 people per day die of HIV/AIDS globally.

Aaron Whiteley

Aaron Whiteley

Whiteley, assistant professor of biochemistry, has won a New Innovator Award, which is reserved for “exceptionally creative early career scientists proposing innovative, high-impact projects.” It is a $1.5 million, five-year grant.

Whiteley’s research aims to shed light on why variations in bacteria in the gut microbiome correspond to variations in cancer patients’ responsiveness to immunotherapy. The mechanism is not well understood.

Recent evidence suggests the cGAS-STING immune pathway, an immune system pathway that is a key mediator of inflammation from infection, cellular stress or tissue damage, also plays a crucial role in activating anticancer signaling, and Whiteley’s group has found that gut-associated bacteria produce signaling molecules that activate with this pathway.

He adds: “Funding from the New Innovator Award provides critical support for our ambitious project. We hope that by understanding how bacteria in the microbiome manipulate cGAS-STING signaling, we will enable future development of better anticancer therapeutic agents."

The NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program aims to accelerate the pace of biomedical, behavioral and social science discoveries by supporting exceptionally creative scientists conducting highly innovative research.

The program seeks to identify scientists with high-impact ideas that may be risky or at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process. The program encourages creative, outside-the-box thinkers to pursue exciting and innovative ideas in any area of biomedical, behavioral or social science within the NIH mission.

The NIH Common Fund encourages collaboration and supports a series of exceptionally high-impact, trans-NIH programs.

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.

The 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.