Christian Petersen, assistant professor of molecular biosciences at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, has received the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award — a high-risk, high-reward research honor.
With the long-range goal of harnessing the potential of stem cells for human tissue repair, Petersen is working to understand the planarian flatworm’s amazing ability to regenerate its entire body from a small wedge of tissue.
According to the NIH, the award is designed to support unusually creative new investigators with highly innovative research ideas at an early stage of his or her career. Only 41 such grants were announced Monday, presented to scientists proposing innovative approaches to major contemporary challenges in biomedical research.
Planarian flatworms are capable of replacing any tissue damaged by injury, even after decapitation, due to the precise orchestration of adult pluripotent stem cells. Studies of this animal will allow identification of the molecular players and organizing principles that govern perfect tissue restoration.
The NIH award is for $2.3 million over five years. Petersen will use his funding to test the hypothesis that animals capable of adult tissue regeneration have specialized and robust spatial information systems that control the precise utilization of stem cells for producing appropriate new tissues after injury.
“We anticipate that a complete understanding of these positional control systems will ultimately provide inspiration for novel tissue engineering methods or strategies to promote natural repair mechanisms in humans,” Petersen said.
The New Innovator Award is part of the High Risk-High Reward program supported by the National Institutes of Health Common Fund.
“This program allows researchers to propose highly creative research projects across a broad range of biomedical research areas, that involve inherent risk, but have the potential for high rewards,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins said.