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Week of October 3, 2011

Cheng receives prestigious 2011 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

Wei Cheng, Ara G. Paul Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the College of Pharmacy, has received a 2011 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). With the award, Cheng, will receive $1.5 million in direct costs to support his research over the next five years.

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award addresses two important goals: stimulating highly innovative research, and supporting outstanding new investigators. Many new investigators have highly innovative research ideas, but not the preliminary data required to compete successfully in the traditional NIH peer review system.

As part of NIH’s commitment to increasing opportunities for new scientists, it has created the innovator award to support new investigators whose projects have the potential for a major impact on science.

Cheng’s research focuses on innovative therapeutic development against Human Immunodeficiency Virus type 1 (HIV-1) and Hepatitis C virus.

“The early events in HIV infection of CD4+ T cells are poorly understood,” explains Steven Schwendeman, Ara G. Paul Professor and Chair, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. (CD4 refers to the protein that coats mature T cells, a kind of white blood cell involved in cell immunity. The T refers to helper cells that amplify the capabilities of the immune system.)

“Professor Cheng’s strategy is to develop a set of novel techniques to study HIV infection of CD4+ T cells in real time, one virion (virus particle) at a time,” Schwendeman adds. If successful, the results from this study will establish, for the first time, a causative link between the HIV entry pathway, and the infection of CD4+ T cells. This will advance therapeutic development to block HIV-1 entry to CD4+ T cells, and would be a huge step toward improved HIV treatment.”

Cheng joined the college in 2009, after completing his postdoctoral training in the University of California at Berkeley lab of Carlos Bustamante. At Berkeley, Cheng explored helicases, a class of proteins that make up about one percent of the human genome. To aid his research, Cheng built a sophisticated instrument called “optical tweezers.” He now uses the same technology to isolate individual HIV virus components.

“Receiving the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award is humbling,” Cheng says. “There are so many very talented scientists in the U.S. Having my research singled out for support from such a distinguished group is a great honor.”

Cheng believes that the single molecule technique has great potential in deciphering fundamental mechanisms of biochemical events applicable to drug delivery. For example: How does a drug molecule cross the cell membrane; and how does a viral vector deliver genes or drugs into host cells?

“By answering these questions, we are better equipped to improve the efficiency and specificity of drug delivery, and eventually engineer better drug delivery vectors,” Cheng explains.

The Record ran the Medical School’s announcement Sept. 21 of Sundeep Kalantry, another recipient of this award.



Katherine Weider, creative arts producer, School of Art & Design, on offering advice for students: “You can’t always imagine your future. I think you have to trust that your loves and your interests will eventually lead you to the right place.”


“Photographer as Witness: Proof Enough?” with Jill Vexler, 7-8:30 p.m. Oct. 11, Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery in Room 100

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