Research Scientist Receives Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Institute of Health


Research Scientist Receives Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Institute of Health

ALBANY, NY (November 8, 2017) Dr. Ken Halvorsen, senior research scientist with The RNA Institute at the University at Albany recently received an Outstanding Investigator Award (R35) from the National Institute of Health. The award of $1.9 million will be used over 5 years to fund the development of novel, user-centric technologies for the detection and single-molecule analysis of ribonucleic acid (RNA) – a vital class of molecules found in all living things. RNA is supremely important to Halvorsen’s research study with RNA based approaches used in clinical diagnostics and disease treatment. RNA can also be difficult to work with. The HalvorsenLab, established in 2013, is particularly interested in developing tools and methods for the detection and analysis of RNA at the molecular level – useful for both basic research and for clinical purposes. Unlike typical research project grants, this funding supports the vision of the researcher’s laboratory.

“This award is really exciting. It gives us [Halvorsen’s lab-team] a lot of flexibility to use resources as we see fit rather than being tied to a specific project. Being able to pivot-in response to discoveries is really important in science. In fact neither of the technologies we’re working on now would have been invented without having that flexibility.” Says Halvorsen.

“This is just one example of why flexible funding for science research is so important and why Ken’s grant is invaluable to the work he’s doing at the Institute.” Adds Paul Agris, founding director of The RNA Institute.

The HalvorsenLab is focused on continued development of two technologies, which he co-invented with Dr. Wesley Wong at Harvard University. One technology, an instrument called the Centrifuge Force Microscope (CFM), will enable high-throughput probing of individual RNA molecules to analyze their structure and function. This type of analysis furthers understanding of how RNA works at a molecular level, which is useful for basic research and in designing and optimizing RNA-based therapeutics.

The second technology is a set of engineered molecular devices Halvorsen calls ‘DNA nanoswitches’ which are small programmable switches that can change their shape to report the presence of a specific target molecule. The lab team is working to adapt nanoswitches to detect various RNA molecules including RNA viruses such as the Zika virus, which recently caused a global health emergency and still poses a serious health risk.

According to Dr. Halvorsen, The RNA Institute provides a great environment for his unique work. His lab team is also collaborating with leading RNA scientists to make sure the technologies developed have practical usages in their labs as well as in the broader scientific community. His hope is that the benefits and implications of work will be far-reaching on future RNA research

“Ultimately, my goal is to see these technologies become common tools in the scientific community and to eventually find clinical use in disease diagnostics.” Halvorsen shares.

Media contact: Leah Scott lmscott2@albany.edu

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