C. Erec Stebbins, associate professor at The Rockefeller University, has been awarded an inaugural EUREKA grant from the National Institutes of Health for a project aimed at exploiting a bacteria-based “nanosyringe” as a means of delivering proteins into specific cells for therapeutic purposes. The award, which provides $200,000 a year for three years, was announced by the NIH September 3.
The EUREKA program — Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration — was established last year to help researchers test novel hypotheses or approach major methodological challenges in projects generally considered too risky for traditional funding vehicles. It is led by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) with support from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Grant applications were reviewed last fall on several criteria including significance of the problem to be solved, innovation in solving it, logic of the experimental plan and investigator’s research history. Unlike conventional grants, however, the EUREKA program does not emphasize the likelihood of a project to produce marketable results. The program awarded a total $42.2 million to 38 scientists.
Stebbins, head of Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Structural Microbiology, studies pathogen-host interactions. In his EUREKA-funded project, Stebbins is examining a molecular tool evolved by pathogenic bacteria that harnesses host energy reserves and precisely delivers toxins into healthy host cells. Stebbins aims to reverse-engineer such a “nanosyringe” for therapeutic use — injecting into diseased cells functional versions of proteins that the disease has rendered nonfunctional or proteins that inhibit the action of other, malfunctioning proteins. Clinical applications of the tool include restoring tumor-suppressing proteins or pro-apoptotic polypeptides into cancer cells, injecting enzymes mutated by inherited diseases and introducing transcription inhibitors to shut down genes whose expression might lead to disease.
Stebbins, who earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and structural biology from Cornell University in 1999 and did postdoctoral research at Yale University School of Medicine, joined Rockefeller University as assistant professor and head of laboratory in 2001, becoming associate professor in 2006. He is the recipient of the American Society of Microbiology’s ICAAC Young Investigator Award, among other honors.
NIGMS, one of 27 NIH institutes, supports basic research that increases understanding of life processes and forms the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention.