Matthew D. Disney, a professor on the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) has been awarded a prestigious 2015 Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The award, one of only 13 given this year, enables scientists to develop groundbreaking approaches with a significant impact on broad areas of biomedical science.
“This program has consistently produced research that revolutionized scientific fields by giving investigators the freedom to take risks and explore potentially groundbreaking concepts,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “We look forward to the remarkable advances in biomedical research the 2015 awardees will make.”
“This is a great honor not only for Matt and his lab, but for The Scripps Research Institute as well,” said TSRI’s President-Elect Steve Kay. “Matt’s work represents the kind of research the institute is known for—bold, imaginative and aimed at helping those people with the greatest medical needs. Our congratulations to Matt on this well-deserved achievement.”
Dale Boger, chair of TSRI’s Department of Chemistry, added, “We are thrilled to learn that Professor Disney’s work has been recognized and funded with a coveted NIH Pioneer Award. His research addresses fundamental questions on targeting RNA with therapeutics and has resulted in exciting translational opportunities.”
The Pioneer Award, established in 2004, is part of the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program supported by the NIH Common Fund. Disney’s Pioneer Award provides $4.8 million of funding over five years.
“We will use the money wisely to advance precision therapeutics that trick disease-affected cells into making their own drug against diseases for which there are no known cures,” said Disney. “I am honored to receive this award. I have great respect for previous winners and the transformative science that they have accomplished by using support from the Pioneer Award mechanism. Given the extremely competitive nature of this award, the scientific community thinks we are on to something potentially transformative to treat and study debilitating neurological diseases. It has taken us a long time to convince them of this and our persistence has paid off, but there is still much more work to be done!”
Disney’s revolutionary approach uses cells as reaction vessels and a disease-causing defect as a catalyst to synthesize treatments within the disease-affected cell itself. Because the treatment is synthesized only in disease-affected cells, these novel compounds provide highly specific therapeutics that only act when a disease is present, offering potential treatments in a selective, precise and unprecedented manner.
In a 2014 study, Disney and his colleagues used the technology to successfully counteract myotonic dystrophy type 2, a relatively mild and uncommon form of the progressive muscle weakening disease, caused by a type of RNA defect known as a “tetranucleotide repeat,” in which a series of four nucleotides is repeated more times than normal in an individual’s genetic code.
There are greater than 30 incurable diseases that Disney’s approach will be applied towards, including include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig disease), fragile X syndrome (the most common cause of autism) and Huntington’s disease.
About The Scripps Research Institute
The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) is one of the world’s largest independent, not-for-profit organizations focusing on research in the biomedical sciences. TSRI is internationally recognized for its contributions to science and health, including its role in laying the foundation for new treatments for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, hemophilia, and other diseases. An institution that evolved from the Scripps Metabolic Clinic founded by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps in 1924, the institute now employs about 2,700 people on its campuses in La Jolla, CA, and Jupiter, FL, where its renowned scientists—including two Nobel laureates—work toward their next discoveries. The institute’s graduate program, which awards PhD degrees in biology and chemistry, ranks among the top ten of its kind in the nation. For more information, see www.scripps.edu.