Tufts Medical School Researcher Named New Innovator by NIH Director

Prestigious Award Recognizes Groundbreaking Work in Infectious Diseases

BOSTON — Ekaterina Heldwein, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular biology at Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University in Boston, has been named one of 29 recipients of the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award. Heldwein is using structural and biophysical approaches to discover how, in atomic-level detail, herpesviruses enter host cells.

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Herpesviruses infect their human hosts for life, causing symptoms that range from cold sores, infectious mononucleosis and chicken pox to blindness, encephalitis, cancers, and life-threatening conditions in immunocompromised individuals and in newborns. Eight of the herpesviruses infect humans including Herpes Simplex virus, varicella zoster virus, cytomegalovirus, and Epstein-Barr virus. Heldwein’s research has identified the shape of one of the proteins that allows herpesviruses to enter cells. Understanding their cell-entry mechanism is essential for designing antiviral therapeutics that block infection.


“Herpesviruses have been around for millennia but we know very little about them, partially because of their complexity. The viruses coexist with human hosts, evade detection, establish dormancy and re-emerge and use three to four proteins to enter cells, unlike most viruses which only use one protein,” said Heldwein. “Our aim is to use structural biology methods to understand what these viral glycoproteins look like and how they work to allow viruses to gain entry into cells. I am honored to receive recognition from NIH at this early stage of the research and look forward to contributing more to research on herpesviruses.”


“Dr. Heldwein’s award from NIH will accelerate her research, contribute to the concentration of infectious diseases work at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and, most importantly, help to provide answers to basic questions about herpesviruses,” said Michael Rosenblatt, MD, dean of Tufts University School of Medicine. “The end goal is to benefit people who suffer from any of these viruses. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the NIH and NIH are to be applauded for pushing the boundaries of research in infectious diseases.”


The New Innovator Awards from NIH, part of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research initiative, are being awarded for the first time to support early-career scientists who take innovative -- and potentially transformative -- approaches to major challenges in biomedical research. This prestigious award, totaling $1.5 million in direct costs over five years, recognizes bold ideas from some of the nation’s most innovative new scientists.  NIH reports that more than 2,100 applications were received for this extremely competitive program.


More information on the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award and the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research is available at http://www.nih.gov/news/index.html


About Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences


Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts at Tufts University are international leaders in innovative medical education and advanced research. The School of Medicine and the Sackler School are renowned for excellence in education in general medicine, special combined degree programs in business, health management, public health, bioengineering and international relations, as well as basic and clinical research at the cellular and molecular level. Ranked among the top in the nation, the School of Medicine is affiliated with six major teaching hospitals and more than 30 health care facilities. The Sackler School undertakes research that is consistently rated among the highest in the nation for its effect on the advancement of medical science.


A note regarding the above references to the Sackler School: In December 2019, Tufts University announced that it would remove the Sackler name from all programs and facilities—including the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. At that time, the school was renamed the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

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