Homme Hellinga, a professor of biochemistry at Duke University, is one of only nine researchers in the US to receive a Director’s Pioneer Award with $2.5 million from the National Institutes of Health.

The “unrestricted” grant is for $500,000 over each of the next five years. The awards were announced last week. They are intended “to encourage exceptional researchers and thinkers from multiple disciplines to conduct high-risk, high-impact research related to the improvement of human health,” according to the NIH.

“By bringing the awardees’ unique perspectives and creativity to bear on key medical research questions, these scientific Pioneers may one day develop seminal theories or technologies that will propel science forward to improve human health,” the NIH said.

Selection specifications included scientific innovation and creativity, intellectual energy and leadership potential.

Hellinga researches theoretical and experimental approaches to designing proteins and drugs. A holder of a PhD in Molecular Biology from Cambridge University, he has developed computational methods that have enabled him and his colleagues to engineer proteins to alter their functions, Duke said in a statement.

In June, Duke announced that Hellinga and other biochemists had used computational design to engineer and construct a protein that could sense the nerve agent soman. They said the research could lead to means of detecting other agents such as sarin.

“Such proteins could be incorporated into detectors, which might resemble smoke detectors and could be widely deployed as early-warning alarms, weapons monitors or in the decontamination process after an attack,” Duke said “The detector could not only warn of the presence of the nerve agent, but act as a continuous monitor of its levels.”

To learn more about Hellinga’s research, see: www.biochem.duke.edu/Hellinga/hellinga.html

For information about the other winners, see: www.nih.gov/news/pr/sep2004/od-29.htm