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‘High-risk, high-reward’ grant gives Ohio State researchers creative freedoms

Gallego-Perez (center) demonstrates TNT technology in his lab with Assistant Professor Natalia Higuita-Castro and former graduate research assistant Alec Sunyecz. Credit: Courtesy the College of Engineering

Research demonstrating how Tissue Nanotransfection (TNT) can convert skin cells into blood vessels and nerve cells with the use of nanodevices and help brain-injured patients is moving forward at Ohio State.

Daniel Gallego-Perez, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and general surgery, won the Director’s New Innovator Award of $2.3 million from National Institutes of Health for his “high-risk, high-reward” research, which will allow him and his team to build on technology developed last year.

TNT is focused on using nanodevices, tiny particles created to interact with cells and tissues and carry out specific tasks, to deliver genes into tissues to make blood vessels out of skin tissue, Gallego-Perez said. The nanodevices will repair damaged tissues in the body by reprogramming “tissues to convert one tissue type into another.”

“Our hope is that we can use this technology to grow brain tissue as it would in the body and then implant it back into the brain to help in recovery from injury,” Gallego-Perez said.

Gallego-Perez and other researchers at Ohio State are targeting nerve tissue. Their goal is to easily shape or mold nerve tissue to better repair tissues for people who have injuries or defects in both the peripheral nervous system — the network of nerves running throughout the body that send signals to the spinal cord and brain — and the brain for damage caused by strokes or other trauma.

This research is being carried out in animals to build clinical data that will potentially have the ability to be applied in humans, which is Gallego-Perez’s ultimate goal.

The grant will provide enough resources to allow researchers to continue working in this field for the next five years.

“This program supports exceptionally innovative researchers who have the potential to transform the biomedical field,” Francis Collins, NIH director, said in a statement. “I am confident this new cohort will revolutionize our approaches to biomedical research through their groundbreaking work.”

When researchers write grants to the NIH, they typically have to lay out all of the steps in their experiments in great detail. But this grant is different in that it is viewed as high-risk, high-reward; it is not completely clear what exact research methods will be used. Gallego-Perez said the grant gives him freedom to spend his resources on anything he deems useful for the research.

“They basically give you the money to be creative,” Gallego-Perez said. “I’m not constrained by a specific set of experiments. I can take my research wherever my data is telling me to go.”

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