Carnegie Mellon University
October 04, 2022

Kuang Receives NIH Director's New Innovator Award

By Jocelyn Duffy

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Zheng Kuang, assistant professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, has received a National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award. The award is part of the NIH's High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, which is supported by the Common Fund.

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program supports investigators at each career stage who propose innovative research that, due to its inherent risk, may struggle in the traditional NIH peer-review process despite its transformative potential. Investigators supported by the program think beyond traditional bounds and pursue trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH's mission to advance knowledge and enhance health.

This year, the program is presenting 103 awards to researchers across the United States, including 72 New Innovator Awards. The NIH Director's New Innovator Award, established in 2007, supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received an NIH R01 or equivalent grant.

"The science advanced by these researchers is poised to blaze new paths of discovery in human health," said Lawrence A. Tabak, who is performing the duties of the director of NIH. "This unique cohort of scientists will transform what is known in the biological and behavioral world. We are privileged to support this innovative science."

Kuang will use the award to support research that seeks to unravel how cells and bacteria found in the intestines work together to regulate both metabolism and immunity and the impact this interplay has on digestive disease.

The intestine is responsible for nutrient absorption and immune defense, two processes that are highly intertwined and are often influenced by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. A deviation in either of these processes can lead to various digestive system diseases and metabolic disorders. But little is known about how our intestine coordinates these two processes, especially in the face of environmental challenges.

In previous work, Kuang identified that a community of organisms found in the intestine, called the gut microbiota, control a 24-hour rhythm, known as a circadian rhythm, in the inner layer [ZK1]of the intestine. The gut microbiota does this using an environmentally influenced genetic mechanism called epigenetics. Under the New Innovator Award, he will further this work to determine how immune and metabolic activities are temporally coordinated and how these circadian rhythms are affected by environmental changes. Their findings could provide new pathways for treating intestinal metabolic and immune disorders that target the microbiota or epigenetic machinery.

"The New Innovator Award is a game changer for us to study how the gut microbes coordinate our just-in-time metabolic and immune functions in response to the daily oscillations of nutrients and microbial challenges," Kuang said. "The multidisciplinary and collaborative community at Carnegie Mellon made this ambitious research possible."