UC Berkeley News


Berkeley's Heald chosen for $2.5 million Pioneer Award
Intended by NIH to fund innovative research, award goes to MCB prof investigating aspects of cellular growth

| 28 September 2006

Rebecca Heald, shown this week in her lab, will use the proceeds from her NIH Pioneer Award to study how cells scale the size of their internal organelles. She calls the award a "bet" on the part of NIH that she can answer this fundamental biological question.(Deborah Stalford photo)
Rebecca Heald, a Berkeley cell biologist, is one of 13 researchers selected last week to receive the 2006 Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The annual award, totaling $2.5 million over five years, is designed to fund "high-risk" research with potentially high payoffs for human health.

Heald, a professor of molecular and cell biology, will receive the award to support her research on a fundamental question of biology: How do cells determine the size of their internal structures, or organelles, as they get bigger or smaller?

This has implications for cancer, because many cancer cells exhibit outsized organelles. Screening for cervical cancer, for example, involves looking for grossly distorted nuclei in cervical cells collected during a Pap smear.

"The scaling of organelles is an interesting idea that has been difficult to investigate. We don't have the first clue as to what regulates it - it's a wide-open question," says Heald. "NIH is betting on me as someone who can try to answer this question, which is fundamental in cell biology."

The NIH created the awards in 2003 to fund what it terms "high-risk" research, that is, research that might not get funding through the standard peer-review process, either because it is too novel, spans too broad a range of disciplines, or is at too early a stage. Yet this type of research has the potential to affect many other fields and produce important insights that will advance human health.

"The 2006 Pioneer Award recipients are a diverse group of forward-thinking scientists whose work could transform medical research," said Elias Zerhouni, NIH director. "The awards will give them the intellectual freedom to pursue exciting new research directions and opportunities in a range of scientific areas, from computational biology to immunology, stem-cell biology, nanotechnology, and drug development."

About the Pioneer Award
Now in its third year, the Pioneer Award is a key component of the National Institute of Health's Roadmap for Medical Research.The program supports exceptionally creative scientists who take highly innovative approaches to major challenges in biomedical research.

Says Elias Zerhouni, NIH director: "In addition to supporting outstanding research, the Pioneer Award is an innovation in its own right. It is one way we are exploring the funding of unconventional ideas that are promising but might not fare well in the traditional peer-review system."

For more information on the Pioneer Award, including details on the 22 scientists who received awards in the first two years of the program, visit nihroadmap.nih.gov/pioneer.

Heald, a member of the Berkeley faculty since 1998, has done groundbreaking research on the mechanisms of cell division, focusing on the mitotic spindle apparatus, a complex macromolecular machine that segregates duplicated chromosomes equally to the two daughter cells prior to cell division.

Noting that the spindles in egg cells of the frog Xenopus laevis are much larger than the spindles of a smaller frog, Xenopus tropicalis, she recently demonstrated that the cytoplasm of the cell, not the chromosomes, seems to determine the spindle size. She plans to search for the proteins in the cytoplasm that regulate spindle size, hopefully shedding light on normal and abnormal spindle function.

"In cancer, you see defects in the separation of the chromosomes, or even complete failure of the spindle apparatus, so that cells sometimes get twice as many chromosomes as normal," says Heald. "The problem could be in any one of the hundreds of proteins that make up the spindle. It's a very complicated apparatus."

Heald earned her Ph.D. in cell physiology from Harvard Medical School in 1993. A monitoring editor for the Journal of Cell Biology, she is a former Pew Scholar and the 2005 recipient of the Women in Cell Biology Career Recognition Award from the American Society for Cell Biology.