Irvine, Calif., Oct. 6, 2014 — UC Irvine scientist Weian Zhao will receive a prestigious National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award to further his efforts to create stem cell-based detection methods and treatments for cancer.

It’s part of the highly selective High Risk-High Reward Research Award Program and supports projects by early-career biomedical researchers with the potential to transform scientific fields and accelerate the translation of research into new ways to improve human health.

Zhao, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences, will get $1.5 million over five years. He’s among 50 investigators selected for the 2014 award.

His project is to engineer smart stem cell systems to effectively detect and treat the spread of cancer in the body. Cancer metastases are responsible for more than 90 percent of cancer deaths; however, few current therapies directly target metastatic cancer.

Zhao’s goal is to have stem cell messengers selectively migrate to cancer sites to deliver tumor-fighting drugs or probes for contrast-enhanced medical imaging. This could, potentially, enable the identification of cancer micro-metastases at their early stages and increase the effectiveness of chemotherapeutic treatments for metastatic cancer while mitigating the symptoms associated with systemic chemotherapy.

“It’s a great honor to receive this prestigious award,” he said. “In particular, its high-risk-high-reward spirit gives us the freedom to pursue out-of-the-box approaches to the biggest challenge in cancer.”

Zhao is a member of the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center and the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCI, with a joint appointment in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He has received numerous awards and was named to MIT Technology Review’s 2012 TR35 list of the world’s top 35 innovators under the age of 35.

The New Innovator Award advances two important goals of the NIH by stimulating highly original research and supporting promising new investigators. In 2014, under its High Risk-High Reward Research Award Program, the NIH is also awarding 10 Pioneer Awards, eight Transformative Research Awards and 17 Early Independence Awards. The total funding, which represents contributions from the NIH Common Fund and multiple NIH institutes and centers, is about $141 million.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is ranked first among U.S. universities under 50 years old by the London-based Times Higher Education and is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 28,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. Located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities, it’s Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.8 billion annually to the local economy.

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