I am proud to announce that on June 22nd, I was awarded an NIH R21 grant, which is a mechanism specifically for exploratory research, such as “high-risk, high-reward studies that may lead to a breakthrough in a particular area, or result in novel techniques, agents, methodologies, models or applications that will impact biomedical, behavioral, or clinical research”. My R21 was awarded from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), and the project began July 1st and will end in the summer of 2020. For more information, you can look me up on the NIH’s searchable database of grants, RePORTER.
The goal of this two-year project is to develop a new method for the visualization of oxytocin receptors on the cellular level. Currently, the most common technique to accomplish this goal is called immunohistochemistry, which requires the use of antibodies that are very specific to the molecule you’re trying to visualize. Unfortunately, there are no reliable, commercially available antibodies for the oxytocin receptor. So, those of us who study oxytocin receptors are left using the tried-and-true method of receptor autoradiography to visualize the locations of these receptors in tissue.
Despite it’s reliability, autoradiography has some limitations. First and foremost, it only visualizes the distribution of receptors on the gross anatomical level; it does not provide cellular resolution of receptor expression. Second, it doesn’t label the tissue directly, so it’s impossible to perform any double-labeling experiments to see what other features are in, on, or around the oxytocin receptors you’ve identified. And third, it relies on radiation, which is hazardous and cumbersome to use and dispose of, and requires lengthy incubation times on radiosensitive film in order to yield results.
For these reasons, I decided that I would like to dedicate the next two years to the development of an antibody-free, radiation-free method for the visualization of oxytocin receptors on the cellular level. The secondary goal of this grant is to perform a proof-of-principle experiment to show that the technique can be combined with double-labeling for targets in the dopamine system, in order to show that we can better describe oxytocin receptor-expressing neurons in the brain.
My grant will focus on brain tissue from non-mouse organisms, including prairie voles, titi monkeys, and humans, and will use opportunistically collected tissues that have been banked in freezers for later research use. We will not be focusing on mouse brain tissue, because transgenic mice have been developed in which oxytocin receptors can be visualized with fluorescent markers, so the tool I am working to develop would primarily benefit those investigators working outside of mice, in species where transgenic technologies are not available.
I’m very excited to start this new project, especially because this is my first NIH grant as the principal investigator (PI). My postdoc advisor, Dr. Karen Bales, is co-PI on the grant and will be providing her lab and equipment for me to carry out this work. Hopefully, year two of this grant will be carried out in my own lab somewhere, as I will be submitting applications for tenure-track professor positions for this 2018-2019 academic job cycle.