Dr. Chenxu Zhu Receives NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

illustration of DNA

Dr. Chenxu Zhu, an assistant professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine and a core faculty member of the New York Genome Center, has been awarded the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award to fund an ambitious project to develop single-cell sequencing tools, known collectively as “multi-omics,” that will help track age-related changes in gene regulation programs, as well as cell decay, in brain cells from preclinical models.  

The prestigious award provides $1.5 million plus additional funding for overhead costs over the five-year course of a project. The Director’s New Innovator Award was created in 2007 and focuses on supporting “early-stage investigators of exceptional creativity who propose highly innovative research projects with the potential to produce a major impact on broad, important areas.” 

Dr. Chenxu Zhu

Dr. Chenxu Zhu

“I am incredibly honored and humbled by NIH’s recognition of our vision of studying the biology of brain aging with innovative single-cell multi-omics technologies,” said Dr. Zhu, who is also an assistant professor of computational cancer systems biology and genomics in computational biomedicine in the Institute for Computational Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “I also appreciate NIH’s support and am excited about performing the research projects.”

Dr. Zhu’s immediate goal is to understand the multiple epigenetic changes, including chemical modifications of the genome that regulate gene expression, that occur in individual brain cells during aging. To do that, he needs to create a set of single-cell sequencing tools that will allow him to model the location and timing of changes in epigenetic factors regulating gene expression that are “written and erased” during this period.

He plans to develop four different single-cell sequencing technologies. The first will track how epigenetic regulation of gene expression is turned on and off in brain cells. The second will track DNA damage and repair in the brain cells. The third tool will measure the correlation between the states of regulatory elements and the genes they target. The fourth technology will allow Dr. Zhu and his team to map the locations of cells acquiring these changes.

“If we can identify changes in the gene expression program and where damage accrues, we can determine which parts of the process have the most significant impact on aging,” he said.

Additionally, Dr. Zhu believes the tools will be helpful for many other scientists, particularly those studying cancer. He explained that scientists may use the tools to map genetic and epigenetic changes and interactions between cancerous and non-cancerous cells. He said that information is vital for understanding the mechanisms that drive cancer and how to treat it.

“These tools could be broadly applied to biological systems,” Dr. Zhu said. “They can impact a wide range of biomedical research.”

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award is supported by the National Institutes of Health under Award Number DP2GM154011.

Weill Cornell Medicine
Office of External Affairs
Phone: (646) 962-9476