Aaron McKenna, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular and systems biology at the Geisel School of Medicine, is the recipient of a $1.5 million New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) given annually by the NIH Director’s Office to exceptionally creative scientists proposing high-risk, high-impact research.
Established in 2007 to accelerate the pace of biomedical, behavioral, and social discoveries with the potential to have a significant impact on an important biomedical or behavioral research problem, the NIH Awards program identifies scientists with high-impact ideas pursuing highly innovative research . McKenna is among the first 72 scholars to receive this year’s award.
“It is a wonderful honor to receive the NIH New Innovator Award. We started the lab just before the pandemic, so it was hard to dream big about our scientific impact,” says McKenna. advancing our lineage technologies to better understand the evolution of cell types in development as well as diseases such as cancer. We couldn’t be more excited.
McKenna’s lab focuses on understanding how cells choose their fates within an organism and how these fates are linked. The choice of which cell to become is tightly controlled, creating the right type of cell at the right time and in the right place in the body. Yet it has been difficult to decipher the exact combination of factors that program these fates and increasingly difficult to create complete maps of this process.
Single-cell sequencing efforts hold potential for answering many of these questions, McKenna says, but it’s impossible to imagine sampling every cell on the time continuum or sampling every cell of every phenotype. “What we needed was a biological ‘scaffold’, a way to connect cells across time and space,” he says. “We have developed technologies that create such maps, also called family trees. Lineage trees describe the pattern of cell divisions that creates every cell in an organism down to the founding cell.
A central goal woven throughout this project is to improve publicly available lineage tracing software – to develop tools that aim to reconstruct the complete history of individual cells from their terminal state alone. The McKenna lab’s dual expertise in computational biology and molecular biology technology development places them in a unique position to take breakthrough steps in lineage tracing and molecular biology.
“Our cellular ‘time machine’ works by recording, in real time, events and relationships in a cell’s DNA that are passed down through cellular generations,” he explains. “using advances in single-cell sequencing, genome engineering, and cell modeling, we plan to dissect mouse development using both lineage tracing technologies and molecular recording systems.
Understanding how cell fate regulates cell state is at the heart of many questions in medicine and biology. “A number of recent efforts, including ours, have traced cell fate with lineage techniques in cancer, revealing vulnerabilities and evolutionary trajectories of disease,” McKenna said. “Our goal is to extend these technologies to map cellular relationships in normal development. We can then use these maps to better understand how diseases such as cancer reorient normal development and how these dependencies can be exploited to improve patient outcomes.
“The science advanced by these researchers is poised to open new avenues of discovery in human health,” said Lawrence A. Tabak, DDS, Ph.D., who serves as NIH director. . “This unique cohort of scientists will transform what is known in the biological and behavioral world. We are privileged to support this innovative science.
Founded in 1797, Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine strives to improve the lives of the communities it serves through excellence in learning, discovery and healing. The Geisel School of Medicine is renowned for its leadership in medical education, health policy and delivery science, biomedical research, global health, and creating innovations that improve lives around the world. As one of America’s leading medical schools, Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine is committed to nurturing new generations of diverse leaders who will help solve our toughest health challenges.
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