Han Li (left), assistant professor of chemical & biomolecular engineering, and Timothy Downing, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, are two of three UCI faculty members who'll each get $2.2 million over five years for their research.

The National Institutes of Health has granted 2019 Director’s New Innovator Awards to three UCI early-career researchers: Han Li and Timothy Downing of The Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Kevin Beier of the School of Medicine. The faculty members will receive more than $2.2 million each over five years to support their work.

Li, an assistant professor of chemical & biomolecular engineering, is developing a universal method in metabolic engineering to enhance the biological production of nature-derived medicines, including anti-cancer and pain relief drugs and antibiotics. Biological systems produce small molecules that can serve the same purposes but often in insufficient quantities. Metabolic engineering promises to move the biosynthetic pathways of these medicinal small molecules from their native producers into heterologous hosts such as bacteria and yeast, which can be cultured in large-scale, low-cost industrial processes. “Once such a method is developed, these medicinal compounds, which cannot currently be obtained in a scalable and reliable way, can potentially become more widely available,” Li said.

Downing, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, investigates how the physical forces and changes in mechanical properties of cells and tissues contribute to development, cell differentiation, physiology and disease (mechanobiology). He aims to shed light on how mechanical cues integrate with and give rise to disease-driving mutations, and he plans to build tools and technologies that enable spatial epigenetic and mechanical measurements in tumor tissues, helping to reveal these molecular connections for the first time. This research will ultimately lead to the development of new therapeutic approaches to colon cancer and other solid-tumor cancers. “It’s an honor to be recognized with one of the NIH’s most prestigious research awards,” Downing said. “My lab is very excited to use these funds to help us bring our expertise and innovative ideas in epigenetics and mechanobiology into the realm of cancer research to ultimately discover better treatment options for patients.”

Kevin Beier, UCI assistant professor of physiology & biophysics, also won an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.

Beier, an assistant professor of physiology & biophysics, is interested in the molecular and neural circuit basis of behavioral adaptation. His research has centered on the development of viral-genetic methods for mapping connected neuronal circuits and how they’re modulated by experience. His work combines multiple cutting-edge modalities to dissect the contribution of experience-dependent plasticity to both adaptive and pathological behaviors. “The two main goals of my lab are to engineer a suite of molecular technologies for selective modulation of neuronal plasticity at the level of the cell and, ultimately, the individual synapse and to investigate how synaptic and circuit properties in the brain are modulated either by acute experiences or over time during aging,” Beier said. “This award and research funding from the NIH will go a long way toward helping me and my collaborators achieve these objectives.”

The NIH recognized the three UCI faculty members as part of its High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, which funds unusually innovative and impactful biomedical or behavioral research proposed by extraordinarily creative scientists.