Emory University researchers received grants totaling over $10 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this month. Sean Stowell, a pathologist and assistant professor at the Emory School of Medicine received a grant, while the other grant was awarded to a team of investigators at Emory’s National Fragile X Syndrome Research Center.

Stowell received the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, which is a five-year grant totaling $1.25 million. The grant is awarded to early-career researchers with the “intellect, scientific creativity, drive and maturity to flourish independently,” and allows the winners to skip post-doctoral training and enter into an independent research position directly out of their M.D. or Ph.D. training, according to the NIH website. Stowell is one of 17 researchers to receive the grant this year.

Stowell’s work focuses on understanding the mechanisms of ABO blood group antigens, which are carbohydrates on the surface of red blood cells. These antigens indicate whether blood transfusions are compatible or not.

However, it is still not understood how the immune system forms antibodies against blood group antigens and interacts with microbes that exhibit similar antigens. Stowell’s research discovered a group of immune proteins that can kill microbes that mimic blood group antigens.

“We’ve figured out that there are immune factors, but we have a lot of questions,” Stowell said. “We don’t know how they kill these microbes.”
Stowell, 37, said the grant was particularly helpful to him because it would help kick off his career as early as possible.

“People are getting older and older before they get their first grant,” Stowell said. “If people are half a century old by the time they get their first lab, [the NIH] is concerned people are not going to pursue biomedical research.”

Tristram Parslow, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the School of Medicine and one of Stowell’s mentors, said that in his years of experience supervising M.D. and Ph.D. candidates, Stowell stands out to him as one of the talented.

“[Stowell]’s absolutely one of the most gifted new physician investigators that I’ve ever encountered,” Parslow said. “He’s really going to be a star.”

Parslow said Stowell’s research was important because physicians and scientists have long been using ABO blood groups without fully understanding the mechanisms behind them. He added that the Early Independence Award was highly competitive and Stowell receiving it gave the University “huge bragging rights.”

“At a time when I think everybody would agree the competition for getting grant funds from the NIH or anywhere else is as challenging as it ever has been, for him to be in this absolutely top category of new investigators getting special accelerated funding is really a huge affirmation of his own talent and of the training he got here at Emory,” Parslow said.

A team of researchers at the University’s National Fragile X Syndrome Research Center also received a five-year grant totaling more than $9 million to study fragile X syndrome and associated disorders and work on developing effective treatments.

Fragile X syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by a mutation in a gene on the X chromosome. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is the most common cause of inherited intellectual disability.

Stephen Warren, principal investigator at the Center and chair of the Department of Human Genetics in the School of Medicine, said the grant money will go toward sequencing the genomes of about 600 patients to help identify those likely to have certain variations of the gene that causes fragile X syndrome and other associated disorders.

“We could see whether you’re likely to have ovarian insufficiency or not, and if you’re likely to have it, you could have your kids earlier,” Warren explained. “Things like that would be useful.”

The grant is a renewal of funding to the National Fragile X Syndrome Research Center, which has been continuously funded by the NIH for the last 10 years.

— By Harmeet Kaur, Digital Editor