Budnik receives prestigious MERIT award from NIH

Guaranteed long-term funding allows for ‘more incisive and risky approaches’

By Ellie Castano

UMass Medical School Communications

March 12, 2014

Vivian Budnik, PhD, has received a Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) award from the National Institute of Mental Health for her grant The wingless transduction pathway in synapse development. MERIT awards are given to a very small number of researchers who “have demonstrated superior competence and productivity during their previous endeavors and who are likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner in the future,” according to NIH.

“This award will give me the funding stability required to take more incisive and risky approaches to understand how the brain functions,” said Dr. Budnik, interim chair and professor of neurobiology.

Budnik has received continuous funding for this grant since 2003, but the MERIT award guarantees an additional 10 years of funding with limited reporting requirements. Most other NIH grants require extensive annual reporting, but MERIT rewards highly successful researchers for outstanding past work.

“Dr. Budnik’s accomplishments in developmental neurobiology have brought distinction and recognition to herself and UMass Medical School,” said Terence R. Flotte, MD, the Celia and Isaac Haidak Professor of Medical Education, executive deputy chancellor, provost, dean of the School of Medicine and professor of pediatrics.

The focus of this grant is to understand a novel mechanism of communication between neurons through the release of exosomes, using the fruit fly Drosophila as a powerful genetic model system that has provided understanding to fundamental and conserved processes. Exosomes are small vesicles containing lipids, proteins and RNAs, which can travel across cells, including neurons.

While up to now it was believed that the plasma membrane was a major barrier for the trans-cellular transfer of molecules, such as trans-membrane proteins and RNAs, the discovery of exosomes is shifting this view. In addition, exosomes are emerging as promising vehicles to introduce therapeutic agents into cells. However, a major roadblock in understanding their function and for their use in the clinic is the virtual lack of knowledge of how exosomes go across cells. The major goal of this grant is to use genetics, cell biology and neurobiological approaches to understand how exosomes are released by neurons, and their function in transferring trans-membrane proteins across synaptic connections.

Budnik joins a growing list of UMMS researchers who have received MERIT awards, including:

  • Michael P. Czech, PhD, the Isadore and Fanny Foxman Chair in Medical Research, chair and professor of molecular medicine
  • Robert J. Goldberg, PhD, professor of medicine
  • Douglas T. Golenbock, MD, professor of medicine and microbiology & physiological systems
  • Heinrich Gottlinger, MD, PhD, professor of molecular medicine and biochemistry & molecular pharmacology
  • Allan S. Jacobson, PhD, the Gerald L. Haidak, MD, and Zelda S. Haidak Professor of Cell Biology and  chair and professor of microbiology & physiological systems
  • Craig L. Peterson,PhD, professor of molecular medicine and biochemistry & molecular pharmacology
  • Peter A. Rice, MD, professor of medicine
  • Joel Richter, PhD, professor of molecular medicine
  • Lawrence Stern, PhD, professor of pathology and biochemistry & molecular pharmacology
  • Susan Swain, PhD, professor of pathology
  • Gyongyi Szabo, MD, PhD, professor of medicine
  • Raymond M. Welsh, PhD, professor of pathology and microbiology & physiological systems
  • George B. Witman, PhD, the George F. Booth Chair in the Basic Sciences and professor of cell & developmental biology
  • Phillip D. Zamore, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Gretchen Stone Cook Chair of Biomedical Sciences and professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology

Related links on UMassMedNow:
Budnik gets EUREKA grant to study communication between nucleus and cytoplasm
Riding the exosome shuttle from neuron to muscle
Beauty and the brain merge in art exhibit