Biochemist Tao Pan Receives NIH Director’s Pioneer Award

University of Chicago scientist Tao Pan, PhD, will be awarded $2.5 million by the National Institutes of Health to fund his research into the functional genomics of RNA and epigenetics.

Pan, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, is one of 13 recipients of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, which funds creative and transformative research. The award, which will be presented at a ceremony today, is given to scientists “of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering — and possibly transforming approaches — to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research,” according to the NIH.

“It’s great,” Pan said. “This is a reward for the hard work that the people in my laboratory have done in the past, and will allow us to do some fantastic research going forward.”

In a 2009 paper published in Nature, Pan’s laboratory discovered that cells do not perfectly translate genetic information during the construction of proteins. In fact, molecules called tRNAs add the wrong amino acid, called methionine, to proteins 1 percent of the time — an error rate that can increase as high as 10 percent when the cell is exposed to a dangerous chemical or under attack by a virus or bacterium.

The researchers proposed that those frequent errors may be a defense mechanism against harmful reactive oxygen species generated by infection or injury. The Pioneer Award, which will be given over five years, will help the laboratory test that hypothesis and other ideas, Pan said.

“We discovered that this mistranslation with methionine happens in everything from bacteria to humans; it is a very conserved process in evolution,” Pan said. “We will test our hypothesis of the protective function of methionine and also test whether mistranslation occurs in mammalian cells for the other 19 amino acids to broaden our initial discovery.”

Pan joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1994 and became a full professor in 2009. Before joining the university, Pan received his PhD in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Pan’s grant was part of $143.8 million in awards announced today by the NIH Common Fund. The awards go to projects that challenge the status quo with innovative ideas that have the potential to propel fields forward and speed the translation of research into improved health for the American public.

“The NIH Director’s Award programs reinvigorate the biomedical work force by providing unique opportunities to conduct research that is neither incremental nor conventional,” said James M. Anderson, MD, PhD, director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, who guides the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk Research program. “The awards are intended to catalyze giant leaps forward for any area of biomedical research, allowing investigators to go in entirely new directions.”

More information on the Pioneer Award can be found online at commonfund.nih.gov/pioneer.

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