UChicago researcher receives prestigious NIH New Innovator Award

UChicago researcher Sarah Cobey has received a prestigious National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award.

Cobey, assistant professor in ecology and evolution, will receive $2.1 million over five years to investigate how the immune system evolves protection against pathogens such as influenza. She aims to provide a better understanding of flu epidemiology and to help develop optimal vaccination strategies for individuals and populations.

Cobey is among 50 investigators from around the country selected for the award, who have proposed highly innovative approaches to major contemporary challenges in biomedical research. The award is part of the competitive High Risk-High Reward program supported by the NIH Common Fund. Awardees from previous years have made scientific leaps, established new scientific paradigms and, in some cases, revolutionized entire fields.

“The goal of our work is to apply tools from ecology and evolutionary biology to the immune system and examine the implications for vaccination strategies and pathogen evolution on a global scale,” Cobey said. “I am thrilled to receive the award. The strong support will allow my group to focus on research and especially to pursue some of our more adventurous ideas.”

Influenza is a major threat to public health due to its ability to quickly evolve and evade natural immunity. Traditional vaccines only protect against specific strains of the virus—often ones that are already circulating in the population. Cobey and her colleagues, including Patrick Wilson, associate professor in medicine, will study how the immune system evolves in response to influenza infections and immunizations. The role this plays in individual risk of infection and how the virus spreads among populations will be examined.

“My lab studies the evolution and epidemiology of pathogens, and immunity is a major selective pressure on pathogen populations,” Cobey said. “We now know that the human immune system is evolving in parallel. This evolution is vital to the success of vaccines and protection from disease, but it is not well understood.”

With better understanding of this process, Cobey aims to help develop new vaccination strategies that take into account the coevolution of viruses and host immunity and therefore provide broad protection against influenza.

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award is designed specifically to support unusually creative new investigators with highly innovative research ideas at an early stage of their career.

“Supporting innovative investigators with the potential to transform scientific fields is a critical element of our mission,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “This program allows researchers to propose highly creative research projects across a broad range of biomedical and behavioral research areas that involve inherent risk but have the potential to lead to dramatic breakthroughs.”

More information on current awardees and the NIH High Risk-High Reward Research Program can be found on its website.