Rebecca Voorhees, assistant professor of biology and biological engineering and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, has received an NIH Director's New Innovator Award from the NIH's High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program. The program awards funding for "highly innovative and unusually impactful biomedical or behavioral research proposed by extraordinarily creative scientists," according to an NIH press release. Voorhees's award is specifically meant for early career investigators who are pursuing research with transformative potential.
Voorhees studies membrane proteins—clusters or "complexes" of proteins that are embedded within the membranes that enclose eukaryotic cells. These complexes are used by cells to communicate and signal to one another. Additionally, membrane protein complexes are the target for approximately half of all pharmaceutical drugs.
Specifically, the Voorhees laboratory aims to understand how membrane protein complexes are assembled within the cell. This precise multistep process involves many factors and rigorous cellular quality-control checks.
"If we can understand the molecular mechanisms underlying how these proteins are assembled, we will have insight into treating diseases that result when these processes fail," says Voorhees. "This research will also identify novel, more effective, and more specific drug targets."
Working with these complexes in the laboratory is challenging, and experiments are complicated, Voorhees says, hence the "high-risk, high-reward" designation of her NIH award.
"This program is fantastic for a new lab like mine because it provides a lot of flexibility and breadth to go after interesting results and observations," says Voorhees. "We're really grateful that the NIH has programs like this that allow us to explore big-picture ideas that can lead to important and transformative results."
This year, the NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Program awarded 60 New Innovator Awards in addition to 33 awards in three other categories. Funding for the awards comes from the NIH Common Fund; National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute on Aging; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; and National Institute on Drug Abuse.