09/22/2008 07:00:00

Bruce A. Hay, Caltech Biologist, Named NIH Pioneer Award Recipient

Will study innovative techniques to prevent malaria transmission

PASADENA, Calif.-- Bruce A. Hay, associate professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has been named a 2008 NIH Director's Pioneer Award recipient by National Institutes of Health Director Elias A. Zerhouni, MD.

The Pioneer Awards are a key component of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, says Zerhouni. Now in its fifth year, the Pioneer Award program has bestowed 63 awards, 16 of them in 2008. Each Pioneer Award provides $2.5 million in direct costs over five years.

"It's a great honor and privilege to receive a Pioneer Award," Hay says. "It is one of those rare life-changing events in science in which you are given the full resources you need to do the work you have dreamed of doing for years. It's a wonderful opportunity, as well as a challenge."

Zerhouni will announce the 2008 recipients of both the Pioneer Award and the New Innovator Award today at the start of the NIH Director's Pioneer Award Symposium on the NIH's Bethesda, Maryland, campus.

"Nothing is more important to me than stimulating and sustaining deep innovation, especially for early-career investigators and despite challenging budgetary times," Zerhouni says. "These highly creative researchers are tackling important scientific challenges with bold ideas and inventive technologies that promise to break through barriers and radically shift our understanding."

Hay uses genetic and developmental tools to understand and manipulate the biology and genetics of insect populations in the wild. He will be using his Pioneer Award to pursue a strategy for preventing malaria in humans by introducing genes that block transmission of the disease into populations of wild mosquitoes.

"Current approaches to the prevention of mosquito-borne disease such as malaria--which include the use of drugs and insecticides--have proved inadequate," says Hay. "Our goal is to try something different--preventing disease by replacing the wild, disease-transmitting mosquito population with genetically modified counterparts that cannot transmit disease."

Hay has already developed a novel genetic element, dubbed Medea, which he has introduced into the model insect Drosophila. "When Medea is present in a female," Hay explains, "only offspring that carry the element survive. This results in Medea spreading rapidly throughout the population."

Add a gene for disease resistance to the Medea element and it will go along for the ride, spreading just as rapidly.

"The Pioneer Award funds will allow us to adapt this approach to the mosquito," Hay says.

"It is estimated that, somewhere in the world, a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds," says Elliot Meyerowitz, Beadle Professor and chair of the Division of Biology at Caltech. "Bruce's intellectual and experimental work could lead to a solution to this enormous human problem."

Hay received his PhD in neuroscience in 1989 from the University of California, San Francisco. His honors include awards from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Ellison Medical Foundation, as well as a Searle Scholar Award.

Biographical sketches of the new Pioneer Award recipients are at http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/pioneer/Recipients08.aspx. More information on the Pioneer Award can be found at http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/pioneer.

Written by Lori Oliwenstein