Dr. Ryan Dhindsa, assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine and principal investigator at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute (Duncan NRI) at Texas Children’s Hospital, was named a recipient of the prestigious 2023 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award. Each year, the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, supported by the Common Fund at the National Institutes of Health, awards new research grants to support highly innovative scientists who propose visionary and broadly impactful meritorious behavioral and biomedical research projects. Dr. Dhindsa is the fourth Baylor College faculty and the third Duncan NRI faculty to receive this award.
In 2023, the NIH Common Fund awarded 85 High-Risk, High-Reward Research Awards, totaling approximately $187 million over five years, pending the availability of funds. These comprise 8 Pioneer awards, 58 New Innovator awards, 6 Transformative Research awards, and 13 Early Independence awards. Established in 2011, the Early Independence Award provides an opportunity to support exceptional junior scientists who have recently received their doctoral degrees or completed their medical residency to skip traditional post-doctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions. The recipients are awarded $1.25 million over five years.
“Ryan is a brilliant physician-scientist with great expertise in molecular and human genetics as well as in computational biology. He has accomplished so much at this early stage of his career and truly deserves this highly competitive award,” said the founding director of Duncan NRI, Dr. Huda Zoghbi who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute investigator and distinguished service professor at Baylor College and Texas Children’s. “His innovative research project is poised to blaze new paths and lead to new discoveries that can potentially transform the treatment landscape for intellectual and developmental disorders (IDD).”
IDDs cause immense suffering and affect 6.5 million people in the United States and approximately 1-3% of the global population. These individuals have poor health outcomes, and their life expectancy is 20 years shorter than the rest of the population. Unfortunately, there are currently very limited treatment options available to these patients. Nearly 1,000 IDD-associated genes have been identified so far but these are far too many to study individually and develop custom therapies for each.
Dr. Dhindsa proposes to develop a high-throughput framework for identifying convergent mechanisms among IDD risk genes, which would accelerate the development of targeted mechanism-based therapies. He is particularly interested in chromatin modifiers, which account for nearly 20% of IDD-associated genes. Using human stem cell-derived neurons (iNeurons), CRISPR interference (CRISPRi), and multi-omics, he hopes to uncover how mutations in these genes affect neuronal function and cause disease.
“I am honored to be selected for the NIH director’s High-Risk, High-Reward research program,” Dr. Dhindsa said. “This award will enable my lab to develop novel techniques, spanning human genetics, multi-omics, and computational biology, to identify convergent molecular pathways in intellectual and developmental disorders. We hope that this study will accelerate much-needed therapeutic discoveries for these patients.”
A graduate of the MD/Ph.D. Medical Scientist Training Program at Columbia University, Dhindsa came to Baylor College of Medicine and the Duncan NRI in 2021 as an NRI Fellow under Dr. Huda Zoghbi’s mentorship.
“Impressed by Dr. Dhindsa’s accomplishments and his transformative research plans, we recently invited him to join as an assistant professor at Baylor College and an investigator at Texas Children’s and Duncan NRI,” Dr. Martin Matzuk, Chair of Pathology and Immunology at Baylor College of Medicine, said. “We could not be more proud that our newest faculty member was chosen for this distinguished award.”
“This prestigious award will jumpstart Ryan’s research program and we look forward to many new advances from his lab in the future,” added Dr. James Versalovic, Pathologist-in-Chief and Chair of the Department of Pathology at Texas Children’s Hospital and professor at Baylor College of Medicine.
“I am thankful for this privilege and grateful to be a part of a vibrant, supportive, collaborative, and exceptional community of scientists at the Duncan NRI, Baylor College of Medicine, and Texas Children’s Hospital,” Dhindsa said.
Funding for the award comes from the NIH Common Fund, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Cancer Institute. NIH’s news release can be found here.