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Credit: Serena Jankovic

The National Institutes of Health gave the 2021 Director’s Award to seven Penn Medicine professors, who received more than $8 million total in research grants.

The awards are a part of the NIH Common Fund’s “High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program," which supports scientists pursuing innovative research in biomedical and social science. There were 106 national awardees, and researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine earned awards in three of the program’s four categories.

Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics Ben Black and Professor of Biology Michael Lampson received the Transformative Research Award. According to the NIH, this award funds risky projects that may require large budgets, but could also shape “fundamental” scientific paradigms.

Black and Lampson are working to construct the first synthetic mammalian chromosomes that follow Mendel’s laws of genetics, and their research could have broad applications in the fields of synthetic biology and biotechnology, Penn Medicine News reported.

Associate Professor of Bioengineering and Genetics Jennifer Phillips-Cremins won $3.5 million in grants from the Pioneer Award, which is given to scientists undertaking new approaches in research. 

Her work investigates the link between 3-D genome folding patterns and synaptic plasticity during the encoding of long-term memory in the mammalian brain, and may provide a greater understanding of neurological disorders, Penn Medicine News reported.

Five Penn professors won the New Innovator Award, which is given to scientists working on high-impact projects. Each will receive $1.5 million over a five-year period, Penn Medicine News reported.

Neuroscience professor Amber Alhadeff won the award to fund research on how obesity can be better understood using sensory and nutritive information.

Award recipient and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine professor Peter S. Choi is studying the relationship between epigenetics and RNA splicing, and new opportunities for therapeutic intervention in disease, Penn Medicine News reported. 

Several of the Penn professors who received the New Innovator Award are studying gene regulation. Genetics professor Erica Korb is examining the influence of the physical world on gene regulation through the epigenetic encoding of learning and memory, while Cancer Biology assistant professor Liling Wan is investigating the functions of transcriptional gene assembly.

Another recipient of the New Innovator award, Cell and Developmental Biology professor Mustafa Mir, is researching techniques to visualize and quantify the regulation of gene expression during embryonic development. 

For the past several years, Penn faculty members have consistently received the NIH’s annual Director’s Awards. In 2020, two Penn professors were among the winners of the New Innovator Award and the Pioneer Award, and in 2019, seven Penn Medicine researchers received NIH Director’s Awards in each of the four categories.