Carnegie Mellon University
October 02, 2018

Yongxin Zhao Receives NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

Zhao Will Develop Innovative Nanoscale Imaging Technology through NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program

By Jocelyn Duffy

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

Yongxin (Leon) Zhao, assistant professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon University has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award. The award is part of the National Institutes of Health’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program.

The program supports risky ideas that have the potential for great impact in biomedical research, and catalyzes scientific discovery by supporting compelling, high-risk research proposals that may struggle in the traditional peer review process despite their transformative potential. Program applicants are encouraged to think outside the box and to pursue creative, trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH mission.

The grant will support Zhao as he develops transformative nanoscale imaging techniques that will allow researchers to see precise “biomolecule maps” in pathology samples. These maps will allow for the comprehensive analysis of complex diseases, such as cancer, infection and immune diseases.

Our bodies are made of molecular building blocks such as proteins, nucleic acids, lipids and carbohydrates that are assembled with nanoscale precision. Misconfiguration of these building blocks is a tell-tale sign of many diseases. Being able to characterize these misconfigurations at the nanoscale will lead to a better understanding of how disease progresses and will help with diagnostics and the development of new treatments. 

Modern pathology traditionally uses regular light microscopy to analyze biopsies. This type of microscopy isn’t powerful enough to image biopsies at the nanoscale. To overcome this limitation, Zhao created a new technique called Expansion Pathology, which physically magnifies biopsies, allowing subtle pathological changes to be seen using existing microscopy equipment, 

Zhao will use the NIH funding to build on Expansion Pathology and create new chemistry and imaging strategies for more informative pathology at the nanoscale. Specifically, he will develop a portfolio of more powerful imaging platforms that allow for the direct observation of detailed biomolecule maps in biopsies. He plans to demonstrate the power of these platforms on a range of diseased tissues from precancerous breast lesions to infected tissues.

“We propose to physically expand biopsies to see more, departing from decades of practice in pathology that relies primarily on optical resolution,” said Zhao. “The New Innovator Award provides my lab with the freedom and flexibility to pursue this ambitious and potentially transformative idea.

“We hope that the new imaging techniques can find broad applications in pathology and medicine and elucidate the pathogenesis of many complex diseases, such as cancer, brain disorders and infectious diseases, fostering new discovery of biomarkers that enable accurate diagnoses and better therapeutics,” he said.

This year the program, which is part of the NIH Common Fund, funded 89 awards to extraordinarily creative scientists proposing highly innovative research to address major challenges in biomedical research. Fifty-eight, including Zhao, received New Innovator Awards, which support unusually innovative research from early career investigators.