Viviana Gradinaru (BS '05)—assistant professor of biology and biological engineering, Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, and director of the Center for Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience at Caltech's Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience—has been named a Moore Inventor Fellow by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The Moore Inventor Fellows program awards $825,000 over three years to "early-career innovators at U.S. universities with a high potential to accelerate progress in scientific research, environmental conservation and patient care," according to the program website.
This year, Gradinaru is one of five fellows. Her work examines several aspects of the brain, such as neuronal circuits for sleep and locomotion, and methods of gene delivery to neurons. "Our goal is to understand and be able to influence whole-animal physiology and behavior in order to better understand neurodegeneration and neurodevelopment," says Gradinaru. "To effectively study and repair the brain we need genetic access to specific cells throughout the adult and developing brain."
Working toward this goal, the Gradinaru group at Caltech has developed adeno-associated viruses (AAVs) that can be introduced into adult rodents through simple injections, and then cross the blood–brain-barrier. Funds from her Moore Inventor Fellow award will be used to further develop a vehicle with the ability to carry large genomes to precise tissue targets, a long-sought-after tool for both basic research and therapeutic applications.
"With increased cargo capacity, AAVs would be able to transfer larger transgenes, gene editing tools, and longer promoters—regions of DNA that initiate transcription of a particular gene—for cell-type-specific expression in animal and human cells," Gradinaru says. "Systemic viruses open up the potential for intervention deep inside the brain in a non-invasive manner."
In addition to viral vectors, her laboratory uses techniques such as optogenetics and CLARITY tissue clearing—a technique to render tissues transparent, which Gradinaru helped develop during and since her graduate work at Stanford.
Gradinaru received her undergraduate degree in biology from Caltech in 2005 and her PhD from Stanford in 2010. Among other awards, she has received the National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She has been honored as a World Economic Forum Young Scientist and as one of Cell journal's "40 Under 40." Gradinaru is also a Sloan Fellow, Pew Scholar, and recipient of the inaugural Peter Gruss Young Investigator Award by the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience. In 2016, she was named director of the Center for Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience at Caltech's Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience.
"Our foundation provides these early-career researchers with time and freedom to develop ideas that will make a positive difference," says Robert Kirshner (PhD '75), chief program officer for science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. "Nurturing these scientist-inventors within universities and providing them a glimpse of the outside world will help their ideas have a real impact."
Other recipients of the fellowship include Caltech alumna Jennifer Dionne (MS '05, PhD '09) and former Caltech postdoctoral scholar Matthew Sheldon.