Biochemistry professor Nicholas Wu earns NIH Director's New Innovator Award

Nicholas Wu, assistant professor of biochemistry. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, U of I News Bureau

Nicholas Wu, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has received a National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, part of the Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program.

Wu, who also is affiliated with the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, is among 64 new innovators, recognized for unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant. His project, “High-throughput identification of antibody features for sequence-based epitope prediction,” aims to characterize how human antibodies interact with their targets, focusing first on influenza.

“Human antibodies are highly diverse and can recognize a wide range of targets to confer protection against different pathogens. The specificity of an antibody is determined by its structure, which is in turn determined by its primary amino acid sequence, but we don’t yet understand enough to be able to predict an antibody’s activity based on its sequence,” Wu said.

With the three-year award, Wu plans to develop a platform that will allow him to study hundreds of thousands of antibodies’ structures and binding ability in a single experiment. Armed with this information, he said he hopes to characterize the nature of antibody interactions with influenza and catalogue molecular features that can help predict how an antibody will bind based on its sequence. Wu intends to use the platform to study other types of antibodies in the future, as well.

“In the arms race to combat continually evolving viruses, professor Wu’s work will develop a unique predictive platform using influenza as a model for analysis, discovery and frontier-changing implementation,” said Illinois Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Susan Martinis. “His vision embodies the spirit of the NIH Director's New Innovator Award and exemplifies the best of the University of Illinois – creative, impactful research that changes lives.”

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program catalyzes scientific discovery by supporting highly innovative research proposals that may struggle in the traditional peer-review process despite their transformative potential, according to a statement from the NIH. Program applicants are encouraged to think expansively and pursue trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH’s mission to advance knowledge and enhance health.

Written by Liz Ahlberg Touchstone, U of I News Bureau

October 05, 2021 All News