Scientific innovator

Microbiologist receives prestigious NIH award

In a move to drive innovative biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health has made a major investment in the future of science by awarding more than $105 million in funding to 41 exceptional investigators, including Ekaterina Heldwein, assistant professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Tufts School of Medicine.

Ekaterina Heldwein

“Novel ideas and new investigators are essential ingredients for scientific progress,” Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the NIH, said in announcing the awards. “The creative scientists we recognize with NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards and NIH Director’s New Innovator Awards are well-positioned to make significant—and potentially transformative—discoveries in a variety of areas.”

Heldwein, who joined the medical school faculty at the start of the year, is one of 29 recipients of the New Innovator Awards, and she will receive $1.5 million in funding over the next five years. She was one of 2,200 applicants for the award.

Her research employs biochemical, biophysical and structural biology methods to study viral pathogenesis. As a graduate student at Oregon Health Sciences University, she solved the structure of a multi-drug transporter protein. She continued her training at Harvard Medical School. She will use the NIH grant to discover, in atomic-level detail, how herpesviruses enter their host cells.

Herpesviruses infect their human hosts for life, causing symptoms that range from cold sores, infectious mononucleosis and chicken pox to blindness, encephalitis, cancers and life-threatening conditions in immuno-compromised individuals and in newborns. Eight of the herpesviruses infect humans, including Herpes Simplex, varicella zoster, cytomegalovirus and Epstein-Barr.

Heldwein’s research has identified the shape of one of the proteins that allows herpesviruses to enter cells. Understanding their cell-entry mechanism is essential for designing antiviral therapeutics to block infection.

“Herpesviruses have been around for millennia, but we know very little about them, partly because of their complexity,” Heldwein said. “The viruses coexist with human hosts, evade detection, establish dormancy, re-emerge and use three to four proteins to enter cells, unlike most viruses, which only use one protein. Our aim is to use structural biology methods to understand what these viral glycoproteins look like and how they work to allow viruses to gain entry into cells,” she said.

“Dr. Heldwein’s award from NIH will accelerate her research, contribute to the concentration of infectious diseases work at Tufts University School of Medicine and, most importantly, help to provide answers to basic questions about herpesviruses,” said Dr. Michael Rosenblatt, dean of the School of Medicine. “The end goal is to benefit people who suffer from any of these viruses.”

Earlier this year, Heldwein was selected as one of 20 Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences, receiving $240,000 over four years to support her research. The Pew Scholars are among the nation’s finest biomedical research pioneers.

This is the first time that the NIH has given the New Innovator Awards, reserved for scientists who are within 10 years of finishing their doctorates or clinical training and have not yet won NIH grants for independent research. Because the NIH budget has been relatively flat since 2003, early-career scientists wait longer, sometimes until they’re in their mid-40s, to receive their first NIH grants. A decade ago, when the NIH budget was more robust, the average age of a first-time grant recipient was 35.

This is the fourth year for the Pioneer Awards, which support scientists at any career stage with $2.5 million in research funding over five years. Both programs are part of an NIH Roadmap for Medical Research initiative that tests new approaches for supporting scientific inquiry.

This story appeared in the October 2007 issue of the Tufts Journal.