Prestigious NIH awards go to two JHU scientists

Two Johns Hopkins faculty members have been chosen to receive prestigious National Institutes of Health grants allocated for biomedical research projects that face significant challenges but could lead to major health care payoffs. The Johns Hopkins researchers are among 78 grant recipients nationwide announced Sept. 30 under the High Risk–High Reward Program supported by the National Institutes of Health Common Fund.

Image caption: Natalia Trayanova and Hans Tomas Bjornsson

Natalia A. Trayanova, the Murray B. Sachs Professor of Biomedical Engineering, will receive one of the program's 12 NIH Director's Pioneer Awards for 2013. Pioneer Awards go to individual researchers who propose highly innovative projects that have the potential to produce an unusually significant impact on a broad area of biomedical or behavioral research. Trayanova's award will provide up to $2.5 million in direct support over five years for the development and implementation of a patient-specific heart modeling system that will assist in the delivery of more-personalized diagnoses and treatment to patients with dangerous heart rhythm and pumping disorders.

Hans Tomas Bjornsson, an assistant professor of genetics and pediatrics in the School of Medicine, will receive one of 15 Early Independence Awards for 2013. These grants provide exceptional junior scientists with an opportunity to skip traditional postdoctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions. Bjornsson's award will allocate $1.25 million over five years for research aimed at understanding the cause of, and developing a treatment for, a genetic disorder known as Kabuki syndrome.

In announcing this year's award recipients, NIH Director Francis S. Collins said, "NIH is excited to continue support of visionary investigators, among all career stages, pursuing science with the potential to transform scientific fields and accelerate the translation of scientific research into improved health, through the Common Fund's High Risk-High Reward Research Program. This program allows researchers to propose highly creative research projects across a broad range of biomedical research areas that involve inherent risk but have the potential for high rewards."

The Johns Hopkins recipients expressed gratitude for receiving significant grants that recognize the potential of their research.

"This is very exciting news," says Trayanova, who directs Johns Hopkins' Computational Cardiology Lab within the Institute for Computational Medicine. "This award will provide a great boost to our efforts to improve the way we diagnose and treat life-threatening heart rhythm and pumping problems."

Trayanova will use the funding to help develop and implement a "virtual electrophysiology laboratory," which can simulate the electrical and mechanical functions of a patient's heart. The simulator will use data from the patient's MRI scans to "personalize" each heart model. She envisions these simulators being used in clinics, allowing doctors to develop specific diagnoses and treatment plans for patients with heart rhythm or pumping disorders. Physicians also could use the simulator to assess the patient's risk of developing a life-threatening arrhythmia.

"If it is successful," Trayanova says, "the project could have a dramatic impact by significantly reducing health care costs and improving the patient's well-being because the heart function will be evaluated noninvasively by the simulator, without the need to access the heart directly."

Elliot McVeigh, director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which is shared by the schools of Medicine and Engineering, says, "Natalia embodies the unique capabilities of a visionary biomedical engineer embedded in a world-class medical school: She employs knowledge of the heart from the molecular-, cellular-, tissue-, and organ-level scales to build exceptionally accurate models of the heart and ischemic disease. These models can have a profound impact on directing therapy for patients with heart disease."

Bjornsson is based in the School of Medicine's McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine. His research group studies genetic disorders with epigenetic consequences. These disorders often affect proteins known as histones, which associate with DNA and can affect whether genes are turned "off" or "on." The group's particular focus is a rare disorder called Kabuki syndrome, which causes intellectual disability, immunological problems, and distinctive facial features. Bjornsson is looking for ways to treat the disease by correcting a problem with chemical groups added to the histone tails.

He serves as director of the new Epigenetics and Chromatin Clinic, which sees patients with Kabuki syndrome and similar diseases. "I'm very honored to have my group's work supported by one of the High Risk–High Reward grants," Bjornsson says. "These funds will further our study of Kabuki syndrome, which we hope may lead to treatments for other causes of intellectual disability as well."

"Hans is a multitalented physician-researcher, and it's been exciting to see him develop his early interests in genetics and epigenetics through his work with Andy Feinberg as a human genetics PhD student and with Hal Dietz as a combined pediatrics/genetics resident," says David Valle, the Henry J. Knott Professor and director of the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine. "He is a creative investigator and an excellent physician.  We're delighted that he decided to continue his work with us, and look forward to seeing what he will accomplish with this award."