Health/Life Sciences

Human ‘organoids’ and mysterious class of proteins amongst subjects for brand spanking new Allen Investigators

One new project will examine the nervous system of the octopus, one of several understudied areas funded by the new awards. (UW Photo)

The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, a division of Seattle’s Allen Institute, has announced a new crop of 11 award-winning projects in biology and medicine.

The awards aim to support early-stage projects in research in areas that are overlooked by traditional research funding programs. The group will provide $1.3 to $1.5 million to each of the projects, supporting 23 new Allen Distinguished Investigators.

This year’s awards focus on three areas of research: the design of neural circuits, the role of tiny “micropeptides” in immunity, and harnessing synthetic biology in human tissue research, for instance to build mini-organs resembling human brains or livers.

The late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen initiated the Allen Distinguished Investigator program in 2010. The program has funded a total of 105 investigators, including this year’s awardees. This year’s cohort is supported by $15.5 million in total from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

The investigators will be funded for three years. Here’s a run-down of the research.

Ctenophores look other-worldly, but their nervous system may provide clues to ours. (Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience Photo)

Neural Circuit Design:  By studying the brain circuits that control movement in different species, researchers will shed light on how the nervous system evolved and how it operates.

Researchers will map the neural connections in the octopus arm; study the nervous system in the larvae of a fruit fly species that jumps high in the air, and compare it to a related species that doesn’t have that ability; and examine the nervous system of ctenophores, evolutionary ancient marine animals that resemble jellyfish.

The research groups involved in these three projects are located at San Francisco State University, the Francis Crick Institute and the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience.

Micropeptides and immunity: A recently-discovered class of molecules in the body, called “micropeptides.” appear to be present in every living thing in large numbers, but little is known about their function. 

Researchers will examine these molecules in the human gut microbiome; investigate their role in the immune system of humans and fruit flies; and assess their ability to “wake up” sleeping viruses in the human body, potentially spurring autoimmune disease.

The research groups involved in these three projects are located at Stanford; Yale University; and The Rockefeller University and CUNY Hunter College.

UW Professor and new Allen Distinguished Investigator Kelly Stevens. (UW Photo)

Synthetic biology advances for human tissues: Five projects in this area will focus liver, lungs, brain, connective tissue, and other human tissues.

Projects include studying how to grow more life-like brain organoids, lab-grown brain-like structures derived from human stem cells. Another project aims to recreate the complex branching of lung tissue through genetic engineering of stem cells. And a third is investigating a new type of supportive tissue that could help improve the three-dimensional of organoids in a petri dish. These projects will take place at KU Leuven, Belgium; Boston University; and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

Another project is assessing how human livers develop, with the ultimate aim of growing new organs in the lab. That project will be led by University of Washington assistant professor of laboratory medicine and pathology Kelly Stevens.

A fifth project will involve researchers at the University of British Columbia. The investigators will trace the lineage of stem cells as they  divide and form organoids — when do they divide, and what do the cells turn into?  The team is also working on ways to grow blood vessels in organoids. The project will be led by new Allen Distinguished Investigators Nozomu Yachie, Nika Shakiba, and Josef Penninger.

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