George Hajishengallis Receives NIH MERIT Award


Dr. George Hajishengallis

Philadelphia — Dr. George Hajishengallis, Thomas W. Evans Centennial Professor in Penn Dental Medicine’s Department of Microbiology, has received a MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue to build on his research in the areas of inflammation and periodontal disease.

The highly selective MERIT Awards are designed to give stable, long-term support to scientists whose research skills and productivity are viewed by the NIH as “distinctly superior” and who are highly likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner. Candidates are nominated by NIH program staff and advisory council members during the course of review of regular competing research grant applications. Less than 5 percent of NIH-funded researchers across all disciplines are selected for MERIT Awards.

Through the MERIT Award, Dr. Hajishengallis will receive $4 million over 10 years for a project titled “Local endogenous regulators of functional immune plasticity in the periodontium”. The MERIT Award’s long-term support allows recipients to pursue their research without the burden of devoting time and staff resources to the complex grant renewal process that would normally occur after five years.

“I’m very excited and honored to be selected as a MERIT award recipient,” says Dr. Hajishengallis. “Time is very important for a lab for there are so many things that are unpredictable. This type of long-term support gives stability to one’s work and one’s lab. It’s a good feeling to know that rather than spending time reapplying for a grant in five years, we can devote our time and energy to this project and its outcomes, pursuing something that is both mechanistic and translational.”

Earlier studies (Nature Immunology, 2012 and Science Translational Medicine, 2015) from the Hajishengallis lab identified a protein, designated Del-1, that is expressed by periodontal tissue cells and can prevent inflammation and periodontitis in preclinical models. The MERIT Award project will investigate the hypothesis that Del-1 additionally promotes the resolution of periodontal inflammation and supports the restoration of tissue integrity after an inflammatory insult.

“When you have damage from an inflammatory disease, the goal is not only to stop the inflammation, but to reorganize and reconstruct the tissue, otherwise you will lose functionality,” explains Dr. Hajishengallis. “So this is what we are proposing.”

Mechanistically, Del-1 is hypothesized to regulate the initiation and resolution of inflammation through distinct and complementary mechanisms — acting as a local, internal modulator of the function of immune cells, tailoring them to meet specific environmental challenges.

“If successful, this program can pave the way to a new class of endogenous therapeutic molecules that can both block destructive inflammation and accelerate reconstitution of tissue integrity for treating periodontitis. However, the findings are very likely to have a broader impact and may find application to the treatment of other inflammatory disorders,” notes Dr. Hajishengallis.

The project will be done in collaboration with Dr. Triantafyllos Chavakis from the Dresden University of Technology, Dresden, Germany. Dr. Chavakis, a long-standing collaborator of Dr. Hajishengallis, will serve as the Consortium Investigator for the project.