NIH Honors Two BU Researchers “Poised to Blaze New Paths of Discovery”
Prestigious Director’s Awards encourage scientists to “pursue trailblazing ideas,” including study of energy industry impact on reproductive health and technology to see lung’s inner workings
Two Boston University researchers have won prestigious National Institutes of Health awards that recognize “exceptionally creative scientists” and support projects that are considered high risk—but potentially transformative.
Hadi T. Nia, a College of Engineering assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Mary Willis, a School of Public Health assistant professor of epidemiology, are both 2022 NIH Director’s Award winners. The NIH encourages those applying for the awards—which come with multimillion dollar, five-year funding—to “think beyond traditional bounds and to pursue trailblazing ideas.”
Nia was given a New Innovator Award, which he will use to continue his pursuit of technology to study functioning lungs—outside of the body. His work could have implications for a range of conditions and diseases, from lung cancer to transplantation. Willis will use her funding to examine the oil and gas industry’s impact on reproductive health. She was one of just 14 Early Independence Award winners, an honor given to “exceptional junior scientists.” Each BU researcher was given more than $2 million in funding.
“The science advanced by these researchers is poised to blaze new paths of discovery in human health,” says Lawrence A. Tabak, NIH acting director, of the 103 winners. “This unique cohort of scientists will transform what is known in the biological and behavioral world. We are privileged to support this innovative science.”
A Crystal Rib Cage
Nia’s award will fund his efforts to develop and refine LungEx, a technology for studying the lung ex vivo, or outside the body. His system uses a ventilator and perfusion pump to keep the lung functioning, while a transparent container Nia calls the crystal rib cage allows for observation of the organ’s workings.
LungEx could unlock insights into immune and cancer cells, the real-time dynamics of respiration and circulation, and the body’s response to airborne pathogens. With current methods for studying the lung offering only a limited picture of its workings, Nia says his technology could have implications for drug development and delivery, lung transplantation, and even aging.
The Director’s Awards are part of the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, and Nia says the funding will allow him to tackle questions that might have otherwise been left unanswered.
“These high-risk, high-reward mechanisms are truly empowering for our lab, as they allow us to ask bold questions without worrying too much about funding,” says Nia, a Beckman Young Investigator and National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering Trailblazer awards winner. “With our promising preliminary data in the context of primary and metastatic lung cancer, as well as pneumonia, our team is very excited about the transformative potentials of our proposed technology.”
Nia’s collaborators on the project include Bela Suki, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and 2009 Director’s Award winner, and Giovanni Ligresti, Katrina E. Traber, Sarah Anne Mazzilli, and Joseph P. Mizgerd, all faculty at the BU Aram V. Chobanian & Edward Avedisian School of Medicine.
Protecting Local Populations
Willis’ project will look at possible connections between oil and gas development and reproductive health outcomes, utilizing the ongoing data collection from BU’s Pregnancy Study Online (PRESTO), the largest preconception cohort study ever conducted. Many PRESTO participants are also among the 17 million Americans who live near active oil or gas development sites.
The industrial activities at these sites produce air pollution, water contamination, and known reproductive toxicants, says Willis, who has studied oil and gas development since 2015.
“This project aims to create rigorous epidemiologic evidence that can inform health-protective policy with respect to oil and gas development,” Willis says. “Right now, there is not a great consensus as to what aspects of the industry should be regulated to protect local populations—do we need to zone this industry further away from residences, regulate the air pollutants in a specific development phase, or consistently monitor local water quality?”
Willis has previously found that living near the oil and gas industry was associated with increased prevalence of childhood asthma hospitalizations, decreased term birth weight, and increased risks of pregnancy-related hypertension.
“I also heard from affected communities that some of them were worried about infertility and miscarriage, which are very difficult to measure in population-based data sources,” she says. “I wanted to design my next studies to respond to these specific reproductive health questions as effectively as possible.”
Now, Willis will use a combination of spatial (or geographic) data integration, individual survey data, and personal environmental monitoring to capture key concerns related to this industry. She will assess these exposures in relation to fertility, pregnancy loss, pregnancy complications, and birth outcomes.
Patrick L. Kennedy (COM’04) and Jillian McKoy contributed to this article.