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College of Medicine professor honored with New Innovator Award

How a grant from the NIH can help lead to a new, engineering approach to treating diseases
Zhilei Chen

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced that Zhilei Chen, PhD, associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, is a recipient of the NIH director’s New Innovator Award. Her research may lead to therapies for diseases from cancer to Zika and other infections.

“I’ve always liked to build things,’” Chen said. “In graduate school, I discovered protein engineering, in which we design and build proteins, nature’s building block. I was hooked.”

After Chen’s mother was infected with the hepatitis C virus during a blood transfusion, Chen decided to apply protein engineering to the creation of biotherapeutics, which are treatments based on biological components like proteins. “My hammer is protein engineering,” she said. “Cancer and infectious diseases are both nails I can tackle with the hammer I have.” Research in the Chen Medicinal Protein Lab aims to develop a new generation of highly effective drugs based on proteins which are more complex than traditional pill-based drugs.

In the current project, Chen and her team will create a virus-specific ‘magnet’ from proteins and apply these to the surface of an individual’s cells, allowing the cells to gather up the virus and redirect them to the body’s defense center before they can cause disease in the person. These protein magnets can be given to someone at high risk of infection, and although protection would only last two to three months, it might be a good strategy for infectious agents for which there is no good traditional vaccine.

The New Innovator Award, established in 2007, supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant. “This award gives me the freedom to take calculated risks,” Chen said. “Because it doesn’t require a lot of preliminary data, this grant allows flexibility in the approach and design of the research.”

Part of the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research (HRHR) program, supported by the NIH Common Fund, a total of 55 New Innovator grants were awarded to highly creative and exceptional scientists with bold approaches to major challenges in biomedical research. Chen’s award totals $2.2 million over five years.

Other ongoing research projects in Chen’s lab include the development of protein-based treatments for bacterial infections (including Clostridium difficile and pathogenic E. coli) and cancer.

“My research goal is to develop protein-based therapeutics that can improve people’s lives,” Chen said. “Both cancer and infectious diseases affect millions of people, and there is a lot of room for improvement here. I want to help people through my work, and I want to make a positive impact in both areas.”

The NIH traditionally supports research projects, not individual investigators. However, the HRHR program seeks to identify scientists with ideas that have the potential for high impact, but may be at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process. These awards encourage creative, outside-the-box thinkers to pursue exciting and innovative ideas in biomedical research.

“I continually point to this program as an example of the creative and revolutionary research NIH supports,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD. “The quality of the investigators and the impact their research has on the biomedical field is extraordinary.”

Chen is the second Texas A&M University Health Science Center faculty member to receive an NIH New Innovator Award in as many years; Arthur Laganowsky, PhD, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Institute of Biosciences and Technology in Houston, won last year.

Chen’s awardee grant number is DP2-AI-136600.

Media contact: Dee Dee Grays,, 979.436.0611

Christina Sumners

Communications Coordinator

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