Younan Xia does research at some of the smallest scales imaginable, but the importance of his work has earned a giant reward for the UW chemistry professor. Xia is among 13 scientists nationwide named this month to receive the Director’s Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health, an honor that includes $2.5 million in direct research funding over five years.
Xia will use the award to develop new tools to study complex biological systems at very tiny scales using the power of nanomaterials. His work will focus on building probes as small as 10-billionths of a meter in size that can study how communication signals of cells are detected, amplified and transmitted.
“Cell communication is a very complex system,” Xia said. “It involves many components, and they have to interact with each other meticulously to regulate virtually all aspects of cell behavior, including metabolism and movement.”
His goal is to quantify the interactions a cell has with various stimuli so that he can say, for example, how a cell will respond when a specific type and level of signal input is applied. That could, in turn, lead to development of drugs or new techniques to control tumor growth or to ease pain.
To develop the probes, Xia will work with gold nanocages, minuscule boxes with all corners removed. A gold nanocage, smaller than a typical virus, can absorb light and convert it into heat. The effect can be used to study the mechanism of the process responsible for feeling pain from heat or an injury. Nanocages can also be developed into carriers for drugs or neurotransmitters that can have their delivery or release controlled by light. When placed inside or next to a cell, the probes can also switch signaling pathways on and off.
The Director’s Pioneer Award is a key part of the National Institutes of Health Roadmap for Medical Research. The award supports scientists who take innovative approaches to major challenges in biomedical research. The Roadmap for Medical Research is a series of initiatives designed to transform medical capabilities and speed the implementation of research discoveries.
In the previous two years, 22 scientists have received the Pioneer Award. The 2006 recipients were selected through a process that drew 465 applicants. Experts from the scientific community identified the 25 most highly competitive individuals, then a second group of experts interviewed the finalists and an advisory panel made the final recommendation to Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the national institutes.
“Although we cannot predict the results of pioneering research, the ideas being pursued by the award recipients hold great promise for yielding groundbreaking discoveries that could lead to significant medical advances,” Zerhouni said.
Xia earned his doctorate in physical chemistry in 1996 at Harvard University and came to the UW in 1997. He is the fourth-most-cited researcher in the field of materials science according to ScienceWatch, a newsletter tracking trends in basic research.
The award also carries funding for the University — perhaps as much as
$1.38 million — to cover indirect costs of the research, Xia said, and comes at a time when research funding in general has been declining.
Xia said he is confident he will succeed in devising a new tool for understanding and controlling cell communications, but he hopes that success will come during the time of the national institutes grant.
“They want the project to evolve over five years to become something real,” he said.