Funding Unique, Promising Ideas: The 2021 Salk Innovation Grants

Thanks to the forward-thinking minds of longtime Salk supporters Irwin and Joan Jacobs, every year since 2009 Salk’s Innovation Grants Program has rewarded out-of-the-box ideas that hold significant promise but may not yet have the track record to attract funding from more traditional sources.

With awards given semiannually by peer review, Salk’s Innovation Grants Program is critical for catalyzing emerging science with the power to redefine the future. Since its inception, the program has prompted a host of discoveries. The most recent class of recipients are evidence of the continued impact Innovation Grants awards have on Salk research.

Congratulations to all the 2021 winners!

Sreekanth Chalasani
The Chalasani lab is seeking to understand how animals make decisions. Associate Professor Sreekanth Chalasani and graduate student Jess Haley will use a novel microscopy system to record the activity of most, if not all, neurons in the C. elegans “brain” as it learns, remembers and makes decisions. They will discover neuronal changes associated with each of these three phenomena (learning, memory and decision-making), providing a framework for analyzing more complex brains.

Tony Hunter
RNA Polymerase III (Pol III) mutations cause hypomyelinating leukodystrophy (HMLD), a fatal neurodegenerative disease caused by defective CNS nerve myelination. In yeast, conserved Pol III HMLD disease mutations cause growth defects, which are rescued by inhibiting the sumoylation pathway. Professor Tony Hunter’s lab will investigate if Pol III mutant-derived neurodegenerative phenotypes are recapitulated in human neural cells and in animal models, and, if so, how the sumoylation pathway contributes to such phenotypes. This could implicate sumoylation as a target for rescue of Pol III-related neurodegenerative diseases.

Geoffrey Wahl
Intercellular interactions activate signaling pathways and cause phenotypic changes. The Wahl lab suspects such interactions contribute to cancer metastasis, a deadly killer of cancer patients, yet there are no methods to track the constellation of cells that a cancer cell interacts with in the metastatic niche. Professor Geoffrey Wahl, Postdoctoral Fellow Nikki Lytle and Project Scientist Leo Li will develop Contact Tracing, an innovative tool to indelibly label interacting cells for subsequent identification, isolation and analysis. This may reveal cellular relationships that drive metastatic progression.

2021 Collaboration Grants

The Collaborative Grants provide critical seed funding to large, bold ideas involving three or more Salk investigators.

Aging is associated with dysfunctional immune responses, but no one knows the initiating events behind these processes. Professor Susan Kaech, Associate Professors Diana Hargreaves and Ye Zheng and Assistant Professor Jesse Dixon believe epigenetic influences are particularly vulnerable to age and that many of the age-related changes in immune function and inflammation stem from epigenetic dysfunction. The scientists will determine the effects of age on these factors during a viral infection, identify key features in aging-associated decline in immunity, and facilitate efforts to improve immune response in older patients.

ALS is hallmarked with delayed adult onsets at unpredictable sites followed by devastating and progressive spread. Professor Samuel Pfaff, Associate Professors Axel Nimmerjahn and Nicola Allen, and Assistant Professor Eiman Azim believe that disease onset is accelerated or triggered by secondary environmental insults. An understanding of these environmental interactions could lead to avenues that would delay ALS onset, so the scientists are investigating how genetic models of ALS react to these environmental insults, which will begin to define how genetic predisposition and secondary environmental events converge to trigger ALS.

Kay Tye selected as Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

Professor Kay Tye was selected as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, joining a prestigious group of more than 250 HHMI investigators across the United States who are tackling important scientific questions. Tye, who is a member of the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory and holds the Wylie Vale Chair, is known for her seminal work on the neural-circuit basis of emotion that leads to motivated behaviors, such as social interaction, reward-seeking and avoidance.

Christina Towers recognized as one of 2021’s Women of Influence in Life Sciences

Assistant Professor Christina Towers was recognized as one of 2021’s Women of Influence in the Life Sciences by the San Diego Business Journal. Towers focuses on uncovering how cancer cells recycle both their own nutrients and the power-generating structures called mitochondria in order to survive. Her research could lead to decreased cancer recurrence and improved cancer patient outcomes.

Tatyana Sharpee wins Delano Award for Computational Biosciences

Professor Tatyana Sharpee, who holds the Edwin K. Hunter Chair, was awarded the DeLano Award for Computational Biosciences from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The award recognizes the innovative development or application of computer technology to enhance research in the life sciences at the molecular level. Sharpee’s lab studies how the brain and other biological systems work and uses information theory to quantify the activity of neurons.

Axel Nimmerjahn leads team awarded $11 million by the U19 Team-Research BRAIN Circuit Program

A research team led by Associate Professor Axel Nimmerjahn was awarded $11.2 million by the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, an effort that aims to investigate overarching principles of brain circuit function, including sensation, perception, decision-making and motor control. Nimmerjahn will lead an interdisciplinary five-year project investigating how astrocytes, star-shaped cells in the brain, process and modulate signals from neurons to better understand overall brain function.

Janelle Ayres named inaugural recipient of the Salk Institute Legacy Chair

Professor Janelle Ayres, head of the Molecular and Systems Physiology Laboratory and a member of both the Gene Expression Laboratory and the NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis, was recognized for her contributions to advancing science through research by being named the inaugural recipient of the Salk Institute Legacy Chair. Through her pioneering work on host-pathogen interactions, Ayres has demonstrated that health is an active process, involving evolved physiological defense mechanisms, creating a new paradigm and field that she calls “the biology of health.” Elizabeth Keadle, a Salk alumna and member of the Board of Trustees, recently donated $1.5 million in matching funds to establish the endowed chair at the Institute.

Salk appoints neuroscientist Pamela Maher as Research Professor

Maher, who has been a senior staff scientist at Salk since 2004, will continue her work screening for compounds that could slow or stop the progression of neurodegenerative diseases. Two of her compounds are currently undergoing clinical trials for the treatment of Alzheimer’s (see this issue’s Discoveries for details).

“Salk is fortunate to have such a talented and dedicated scientist as Pam, and we are thrilled to appoint her as research professor,” says Salk President Rusty Gage.

Maher, who is also the head of Salk’s Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory, uses compounds derived from natural products, such as strawberries, turmeric and cannabis, in order to treat the cellular aging and memory loss observed in Alzheimer’s. Her team has taken multiple drug candidates from conception in the laboratory into clinical trials. Currently, two of these compounds, CMS121 and J147, are in clinical trials for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. In mice, these compounds protected neurons and prevented the molecular changes that are associated with aging.

Maher was previously awarded the Edward N. & Della L. Thome Memorial Foundation Award in Alzheimer’s Disease Drug Discovery and the Michael J. Fox Award for Novel Approaches to Drug Discovery for Parkinson’s Disease. She currently has five NIH-funded grants to examine the relationship between aging, inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease.

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