Cleveland Clinic Researcher Receives Prestigious NIH Director’s Pioneer Award

Michaela Gack (pictured), Ph.D., scientific director of Cleveland Clinic’s Florida Research and Innovation Center, has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Pioneer Award to support her research toward developing broad-spectrum antiviral drugs.

The prestigious grant is part of NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, which funds highly innovative research with the potential for broad impact, and will provide $5.6 million over five years. This year, only 10 awardees were selected for the Pioneer Award from a national pool of applicants. Dr. Gack is the first recipient from Cleveland Clinic.

The Pioneer Award, established in 2004, challenges investigators from all disciplines to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical, behavioral, or social science.

“I am humbled to receive this award and to be part of such an esteemed group of recipients,” Dr. Gack says. “To be considered for the High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, you need an innovative and promising idea. I am excited that NIH sees merit in our approach, particularly since our research has implications for developing broad-spectrum antivirals. This support will greatly accelerate discovery and help with this pandemic and future viral threats.”

Until now, Dr. Gack’s research has focused on how the relationship between viruses and the human immune system impacts viral infection and disease. Her work has also centered on how modifying enzymes involved in antiviral gene expression may affect the ability of human cells to detect viruses.

With this new award, Dr. Gack and her team will study multiple viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), dengue, Zika, West Nile and influenza. They will investigate whether targeting specific human enzymes essential for virus replication might be a practical approach to combat viral infections. According to Dr. Gack, this treatment approach may have several benefits over the traditional antiviral approach, which targets the virus directly. 

“We believe that multiple related viruses often utilize or interact with the same enzymes, so developing a single antiviral that targets those shared enzymes could be truly broad spectrum,” she says. “Additionally, every time a virus is directly targeted, it has the potential to mutate. Developing an antiviral drug that targets human enzymes may help prevent this.”

Dr. Gack will collaborate with researchers across the Cleveland Clinic enterprise, including those at its main campus in Cleveland, to better understand viral pathogens and the immune response to prepare and protect against COVID-19 and future public health threats.

“It is a remarkable honor for Dr. Gack to be selected for the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, which recognizes her work as a pioneering scientist who is finding solutions for our patients,” says Serpil Erzurum, M.D., Cleveland Clinic Chief Research & Academic Officer. “Her innovative research embodies the spirit of Cleveland Clinic and stands to have important benefits for this pandemic and future viral threats.”

Funding for the awards comes from the NIH Common Fund, National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

“The science put forward by this cohort is exceptionally novel and creative and is sure to push at the boundaries of what is known,” says NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “These visionary investigators come from a wide breadth of career stages and show that groundbreaking science can happen at any career level given the right opportunity.”

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