Chang Liu, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering. Debbie Morales / UCI

Irvine, Calif., Oct. 6, 2015 – Chang Liu, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering, has received a 2015 New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health director.

Designed to support exceptional innovation in biomedical research, the $2.3-million, five-year grant will fund Liu’s pioneering efforts to engineer synthetic genetic systems that can be used to advance the discovery and production of cancer drugs and useful enzymes.

Liu’s research team has created a living cell with a second DNA replication system that mutates independently of and without harming the cell’s original genome. This second replication system can be engineered with a wide range of capabilities that natural DNA replication systems cannot tolerate. In particular, Liu’s team believes it can imbue this synthetic system with the ability to evolve at drastically accelerated rates. This will be applied to develop enzyme pathways that biosynthesize complex drugs, which are normally accessed via expensive industrial chemical processes.

“DNA replication is the most central process of life, and we’ve developed a way to re-engineer it inside living cells,” said Liu. “We’re very excited about the possibilities. Not only will this let us rapidly evolve therapeutic biomolecules, it acts as a platform for building genetic systems from the ground up. We believe that these new genetic systems will in turn underpin synthetic organisms that can discover and produce therapeutics, antibiotics, materials, and polymers that natural biology has not dreamed of making.”

Liu is one of 41 scientists to receive the award, designed to stimulate highly innovative research and support promising new investigators, as part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program supported by the NIH Common Fund.

“This program has consistently produced research that revolutionized scientific fields by giving investigators the freedom to take risks and explore potentially groundbreaking concepts,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “We look forward to the remarkable advances in biomedical research the 2015 awardees will make.”

Also this year, Liu received the Beckman Young Investigator Award, the DuPont Young Professor Award, and major grants from the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to support his research.

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