Flinn Scholars News

Three Arizona researchers win EUREKA grants

Compiled from media reports


The National Institutes of Health has awarded four-year grants worth $1.2 million each to three Arizona researchers as part of the new EUREKA program, designed to identify and support investigations so innovative that they send science leaping forward--or in an entirely new direction.

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Laurence Hurley,
associate director of Bio5.
(Photo courtesy of UA)

Once in a while, a convention-defying investigation is so innovative that it sends science leaping forward--or in an entirely new direction. Last year the National Institutes of Health (NIH)announced creation of the EUREKA grant program to identify and support such research projects, and now three Arizona scientists are among the program's first grant recipients.

John Chaput and Rudy Diaz of Arizona State University, Laurence Hurley of the University of Arizona, and 35 other scientists around the country will each receive four-year EUREKA (Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration) awards worth $1.2 million to support their pioneering lines of research.

"EUREKA projects promise remarkable outcomes that could revolutionize science," said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni. "The program reflects NIH's commitment to supporting potentially transformative research, even if it carries a greater than usual degree of scientific risk."

The projects funded through the EUREKA program range from Dr. Chaput's quest to discover as-yet-unknown human genes that prompt creation of as-yet-unknown proteins, to Dr. Diaz's effort to build nanomachines for on-command neural stimulation, to Dr. Hurley's creation of a three-dimensional, molecular-level map of potential targets for gene-specific cancer drugs.

"Normal grant-review groups are relatively conservative," said Dr. Hurley, a UA professor of pharmacy and associate director of the BIO5 Institute, in the Tucson Citizen. "EUREKA is funding things that are completely new ideas, but if it works, there will be a huge payoff."

The Citizen reported that in Dr. Hurley's case, the proposed project was unusual enough--and indeed, with a significant-enough risk for failure--that his research team had been denied funding under traditional grant programs. But the EUREKA review group was attracted to the potential for broad advances from his investigation.

Dr. Hurley has long worked toward developing more-discriminating cancer treatments that can knock out cancer cells but leave healthy cells unharmed. He has developed one potential treatment, Quarfloxin, now in Phase 2 clinical trials for leukemia patients, that may prove therapeutic for treatment of colorectal, breast, pancreas, lung, prostate, ovarian, and lymphoma cancers. The new project will aim for a higher-resolution genetic portrait of drug targets, or receptors, so that new drugs can be more precisely configured.

"It is indeed innovative, with a unique strategy for screening for drugs that literally turn one gene, and one gene only, off," said Laurie Tompkins, director of the EUREKA program, in the Citizen. "That's the Holy Grail. It could be cancer, cystic fibrosis, heart disease or anything else. If he can do it with one kind of gene it can do it with any gene."

Dr. Diaz, an engineering professor in ASU's Center for Nanophotonics, is leading a cross-disciplinary research group that, if successful, could transform the diagnosis and treatment of many neurological disorders. His team is working to design molecular-scale devices built from strands of DNA that function as skeletons, Noble-metal spheres that serve as "antennas," and fat cells that store energy like batteries.

Current means to observe neuron behavior "is like observing human activity on Earth from an orbiting satellite," Dr. Diaz said. Employing the nanomachines would permit "direct interaction with cells at the local level."

The nanomachines would be used for direct examination of clusters of cells such as neurons. Once injected into the body, the devices would be controlled externally by specific wavelengths of light transmitted through the skin or via microscopic optical fibers, and could deliver electrical impulses capable of stimulating neurons. Such targeted stimulation would allow researchers to understand better how transmission and pathological interruption of neural signals occurs.

John Chaput in LabDr. Chaput, a researcher at ASU's Biodesign Institute, is directing a team that will be conducting a broad search of the human genome for new information about undiscovered proteins. Ultimately, that could lead to a new kind of map of the human genome that shows all possible locations where protein translation could occur.

"We have developed a combined experimental-bioinformatics approach that allows us to quickly search entire genomes for sequences that enhance the translation of a downstream gene," Chaput said. "By determining the identity and location of these motifs, it should be possible to determine when specific genes are being made and possibly discover new genes that contribute to our proteome. Since many of these genes will likely be made by non-traditional methods, this technology will also allow us to investigate new mechanisms of protein translation.

"The EUREKA competition provided a unique forum for our Biodesign team to develop a transformative platform that represents a convergence of chemistry, biology and informatics," Chaput added.

A second round of Eureka grants will be awarded in the coming year. Researchers must submit proposals by Oct. 28.

For more information:

"'Edgy' UA researcher targets side effects of chemo," Tucson Citizen, 09/16/2008

ASU news release, 09/08/2008

NIH news release, 09/03/2008