Three Duke Scientists Awarded NIH Grants for High-Risk, High-Reward Research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded grants to three Duke University School of Medicine faculty members through the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program. The research of Josh Huang, PhD; Tiarney Ritchwood, PhD; and Clare Smith, PhD, will be supported through the program, which funds highly innovative and broadly impactful biomedical or behavioral research by exceptionally creative scientists. The NIH awarded 106 grants totaling approximately $329 million over five years, pending availability of funds.

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program catalyzes scientific discovery by supporting highly innovative research proposals that, due to their inherent risk, may struggle in the traditional peer-review process despite their transformative potential. Program applicants are encouraged to think “outside the box” and pursue trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH’s mission to advance knowledge and enhance health.

“The science put forward by this cohort is exceptionally novel and creative and is sure to push at the boundaries of what is known,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD. “These visionary investigators come from a wide breadth of career stages and show that groundbreaking science can happen at any career level given the right opportunity.” 

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program is part of the NIH Common Fund, which oversees programs that pursue major opportunities and gaps throughout the research enterprise that are of great importance to NIH and require collaboration across the agency to succeed. The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program manages four awards: the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, the NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, and the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award. 

Huang, a professor of neurobiology, received a Pioneer Award. He is developing a new generation of precise and programmable cell engineering technologies to monitor and edit the function of diverse cell types across animal organs and species, with potentially broad applications in biomedical research, biotechnology, and therapeutics. 

Established in 2004, the Pioneer Award challenges investigators at all career levels to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical, behavioral, or social science. The Pioneer Award provides $700,000 in direct costs per year for up to five years.

Ritchwood, an assistant professor in family medicine and community health, received a New Innovator Award. The primary objective of her research project is to leverage socially innovative methods to identify exceptional ideas that promote COVID-19 testing and encourage the public to adopt health-promotive behaviors. 

Smith, an assistant professor of molecular genetics and microbiology, also received a New Innovator Award, which will support her lab’s work on tuberculosis. This work leverages genetically diverse mammalian models and new bacterial genetic technologies to define the host-pathogen interactions underlying tuberculosis disease.

Established in 2007, the New Innovator Award 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. New Innovator Awards provide $1.5 million in direct costs split into two multi-year segments.

NIH issued 10 Pioneer awards, 64 New Innovator awards, 19 Transformative Research awards, and 13 Early Independence awards for 2021. Funding for the awards comes from the NIH Common Fund, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.