HHMI Supports Collaborative Teams | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: November 20, 2008

HHMI Supports Collaborative Teams

Howard Hughes underwrites specific research projects for first time
Department: Science & Technology
Credit: Cheryl Senter/AP/© HHMI
Credit: Cheryl Senter/AP/© HHMI
Credit: George Nikitin/AP/© HHMI
Credit: George Nikitin/AP/© HHMI

Howard Hughes Medical Institute has launched a pilot program to fund collaborative research projects. The Collaborative Innovation Awards program marks the first time HHMI has funded specific projects rather than individual researchers.

HHMI will invest $10 million per year for four years to fund eight collaborative teams, each led by an HHMI investigator. Because many of the collaborators are not HHMI investigators, the new program gives the institute an opportunity to reach scientists beyond those in its flagship program.

Collaborators will combine their diverse expertise to explore areas that are "too big for any one lab," says Philip S. Perlman, the senior scientific officer at HHMI who oversees the program. "This program promotes a different level of research that depends on collaborating with experts who round out the skill set needed to undertake a risky and exciting project."

One such project is the brain-wiring diagram that Xiaowei Zhuang, an HHMI investigator at Harvard University, and her collaborators seek to construct. Her team includes researchers who have developed innovative techniques for transgenic research, brain tissue preparation, high-resolution imaging, and automated data analysis. They will refine and integrate the techniques and then use them to map connections between cells in the brain. "With this kind of exciting, innovative idea that requires a collaborative effort of five labs and that does not have a ton of preliminary results, it's hard to seek other types of funding," Zhuang says.

Douglas C. Rees, a structural biologist and HHMI investigator at California Institute of Technology, heads another team that plans to develop better ways to solve three-dimensional structures of membrane proteins. They will embed the proteins in symmetrical phospholipid-containing units called membrane protein polyhedra. "The only way we can tell if it's actually useful is if we can solve problems that haven't been solved before that people care about," Rees says. "I don't have any illusions that this will be a magic bullet that will work for everything."

"We're not expecting the eight projects will be equally successful," Perlman says. "You have to accept some risk."

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