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$4.75 million awarded to scientists for high-risk, high-reward research

Jin Hyung Lee will receive $3.5 million to study the use of innovative technology to analyze brain circuitry, and Corey Keller will receive $1.25 million to fund work into brain stimulation treatments for mental illness.

By

Tracie White & Bruce Goldman

 

Two School of Medicine scientists have been awarded grants from the National Institutes of Health for high-risk research efforts that could make a big impact in biomedicine.

The two researchers — Jin Hyung Lee, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences, of bioengineering and of neurosurgery, and Corey Keller, MD, PhD, an instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences — will receive a total of $4.75 million over five years from the National Institutes of Health to fund their work.

The grants come from the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, which is designed to fund scientists conducting innovative work. The goal is to encourage investigators to pursue research that may otherwise face difficulties getting funded in more traditional ways. This year, the NIH program has awarded 93 grants totaling about $267 million.

“We are honored that these gifted researchers have been recognized by the NIH for their groundbreaking work,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “Ambitious research, like that of Drs. Lee and Keller, is essential to Stanford Medicine as we endeavor to advance care and realize our precision health vision.”

Pioneer Award

Lee received the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, which was established to provide funding for investigators at all career levels with bold and innovative research projects. 

Lee plans to use her $3.5 million award to develop mechanogenetics, a novel method that enables noninvasive, precisely targeted spatial and mechanical perturbation of living cells within the mammalian brain, and a functional ultrasound imaging technology that can monitor whole-brain function in animals that are awake and active.

 “Our goal is to develop powerful new technologies that allow us to decode the brain’s complicated circuitry and discover therapies for neurological diseases like epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. Her laboratory seeks to understand the intricate patterns of communication between nerves in the brain and how these large-scale networks control behavior and how, when problems in the network arise, disease results. 

 “We use interdisciplinary approaches from biology and engineering to develop technology that empowers us to not just analyze but to also manipulate brain circuitry with precision,” she said. “We also use advanced computational approaches to build models of the brain. We pull our basic building blocks from a spectrum of fields ranging from medical imaging, signal processing, machine learning and computer science to genetics and cellular molecular biology.”  

Lee is a member of Stanford Bio-X and of Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute and a faculty fellow of Stanford ChEM-H and at Stanford.

Early Independence Award

Keller, MD, PhD, an instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, received the Early Independence Award, which promotes independent research by junior investigators by allowing them to forgo the traditional postdoctoral training period. Keller plans to use his award to uncover new methods of improving brain stimulation treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders. 

“The overall goal is to develop a personalized approach for the treatment of mental illness, specifically using brain stimulation, an emerging field in psychiatry that utilizes magnetic pulses to alter brain circuits,” he said. “I hope to use the money to start up my lab to further these investigations.”

Keller has found that brain-based biomarkers might be used to predict who will respond to transcranial magnetic stimulation and to help monitor brain networks during interventions to determine the best targets or methods for treating each specific patient. His current research is focused on treatments for depression but could work for a variety of mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder.

“Unfortunately, many of these methods of using brain stimulation are one-size-fits all,” Corey said. “The idea is to evaluate the patient in front of us and probe their brain circuitry using TMS and electroencephalograph recordings to determine ways we can modulate the circuit of interest, and then find the specific intensity that will enhance the effectiveness of the treatment.”