HSCI pilot grants support fresh ideas and innovation

Fresh ideas and innovation are the lifeblood of biomedical research, particularly in a field like stem cell biology, which is in its relative infancy. Only by pursuing every potentially promising avenue of inquiry can stem cell science advance rapidly toward its goal of improving human health.

To encourage novel ideas and approaches, HSCI recently initiated a series of pilot grants within its disease programs. These grants provide stem cell researchers — often young investigators at the start of their careers but also more seasoned scientists — with funds to pursue innovative basic, translational, or clinical research projects that are likely to have a significant impact on the field but are not likely to be funded by other sources.

Unlike HSCI’s other funding programs, such as the Junior Faculty Programs or Seed Grants, the pilot grants are disease-specific and aligned with the unique scientific challenges and priorities of HSCI’s Disease Programs. To date, the Kidney Disease Program and the Cancer Program have awarded seven pilot grants to investigators throughout the Harvard community. The Blood Diseases Program, led by HSCI principal faculty member Daniel Tenen, MD, recently issued its first call for research proposals, and other disease programs may follow suit in the future.

Kidney Disease Program

The first to award pilot grants was the Kidney Disease Program, which is co-led by HSCI principal faculty members Benjamin Humphreys, MD, PhD, and Andrew McMahon, PhD. In the first round of funding, four grants were awarded; up to four will be awarded in the second round, which will be announced in the spring of 2011. Each project is funded to a maximum of $36,000 a year and may be carried out over six to 12 months.

As with the first round of funding, this year’s pilot grants will be awarded to investigators whose research is focused on proximal tubuleassociated components of the kidney. Proximal tubules, which are part of the kidney’s nephrons (the functional part of the kidney) are considered the segment of nephrons that are most amenable to regenerative therapies.

While projects are evaluated primarily on the basis of their individual scientific strength, preference is given to those that complement ongoing Kidney Disease Program projects, as this helps build a strong foundation for collaborative research proposals for future federal funding.

Cancer Program

The Cancer Program, co-led by HSCI principal faculty members Scott Armstrong, MD, PhD, and Ramesh Shivdasani, MD, PhD, has awarded three pilot grants, which began in November.

Providing one to two years of funding at $100,000 a year, the grants were awarded to investigators whose research projects support the Cancer Program’s mission — to identify critical genes and pathways that sufficiently distinguish normal stem cells from cancer-initiating stem cells, which would be candidate targets for therapy. Among the criteria for award selection were the projects’ potential to promote future collaborative research, which accelerates the pace of discovery and also provides data with which to seek external funding.

One project is focusing on distinguishing lung tumor-propagating cells from normal lung stem cells — differences that will enable the identification of therapeutic targets in lung cancer, the major cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Another is looking at the role of a specific cancer-causing gene in the self-renewal and maintenance of cancer stem cells in pancreatic cancer, a particularly lethal type of cancer that claims 95 percent of patients within five years. A third project is aimed at developing an integrated system that will enable researchers to track single stem cells in vivo to gain a greater understanding of the biology of malignant and normal stem cells.