September 22, 2011

Zhang lands New Innovator Award from NIH

Zhang lands New Innovator Award from NIH

A young Vanderbilt University scientist has received major funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a new class of “nano-probes” that may help solve long-standing puzzles about how the brain works.

Qi Zhang, Ph.D., assistant professor of Pharmacology, is one of 49 researchers nationwide to win a 2011 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. He will receive $1.5 million in direct costs to support his research over five years.

Qi Zhang, Ph.D.

Qi Zhang, Ph.D.

“This is very exciting … that I have the opportunity of doing some unusual work,” Zhang said. “During the last half century, the major driving force (in science) has been the innovation of techniques and the innovation of ideas. I really like to explore the world in that direction.”

The New Innovator Awards and their companion Pioneer and Transformative Research Projects awards are given out each year by the NIH Common Fund “to catalyze giant leaps forward” in biomedical research and the betterment of human health, NIH officials said.

This year’s award recipients were introduced Sept. 20 at the seventh annual NIH Director’s Pioneer Award Symposium in Bethesda, Md.

Zhang is the third Vanderbilt scientist to receive a New Innovator Award.
Zhang studies the mechanism that allows electrical signals in the brain to be transmitted across the gaps, or synapses, between nerve cells by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. This conversion from electricity to chemistry and back again allows for modulation of the signal – a key aspect of brain “plasticity.”

“With this ‘convertor’ in the middle, there are a whole bunch of things the brain can do,” Zhang explained. In this sense, “the synapse is the physical basis of learning and memory.” Even subtle changes in the function of the synapse can have huge consequences: examples include Alzheimer’s disease and addiction.

Because the synapse is so tiny, measuring only about 1 micron in length, scientists using current techniques can’t tell exactly what happens there.

To overcome this obstacle, Zhang will try to create an entirely new class of biological markers by harnessing the power of nanotechnology and synthetic biology.

Zhang hopes to generate “nano-probes” that reveal the structure and function of the synapse, showing in exquisite detail and in real time the enzymes, transporters, receptors and other proteins involved in neurotransmitter production, release, activation and reuptake.

He and his colleagues will generate a library of random nucleotides called aptamers that bind to specific synaptic components, similar to the way that antibodies recognize and bind to viral or bacterial proteins.

Piggybacked onto the aptamers will be quantum dots and other nanoparticles with fluorescent, magnetic and electron-dense properties that can be “seen” by a variety of techniques, including electron microscopy and functional magnetic resonance imaging.

In this way, the probes may show how genetic variations can disrupt normal signaling in the brain through the altered proteins they encoded, and how those disruptions can change behavior or cause disease. Even more, the close vicinity of those nanoparticles allows active control of targeted proteins via magnetic or thermal forces introduced remotely.

Zhang admitted his idea “sounds futuristic, but I think it’s feasible. (Other researchers) have shown that in principle, it works.”

A native of Shanghai, Zhang earned his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania and joined the Vanderbilt faculty last year.