Dr. Buck Samuel, assistant professor in the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research at Baylor College of Medicine, is a recipient of the New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health. Part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, supported by the NIH Common Fund, the award funds unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.
“I continually point to this program as an example of the creative and revolutionary research NIH supports,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins. “The quality of the investigators and the impact their research has on the biomedical field is extraordinary.”
“It is incredible and humbling to receive this award,” said Samuel, who is with the Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology at Baylor. “The principle of the innovator award itself promotes outside-of-the-box thinking and creativity, and this is precisely the type of environment that our lab seeks to foster.”
Samuel, who joined Baylor in 2015, will use his $1.5 million, five-year grant to examine how the microbes that live within us, known as the ‘microbiome,’ can exert influence on so many aspects of our physiology.
“Interactions with the microbiome can provide a foundation for future health, but if they are disrupted, it can predispose an individual to disease. We want to understand how the microbiome influences these heath outcomes, not just from the perspective of altering one organ system versus the other but from a whole organism standpoint. By unlocking these genetic pathways we hope to develop strategies for microbiome stewardship that are as individual as we are,” Samuel said.
As part of this project, Samuel and his team are developing techniques to dissect this complexity at a systems level.
“Early in life, microbes play a fundamental role in the development of the digestive, nervous and immune systems. We are interested in defining what host and microbial genes are important in setting the boundaries of these ‘critical periods’ when microbes can have a lasting impact. If we can understand what defines those boundaries, we may be able to find ways later in life to reopen those critical periods to establish or reestablish states of health,” Samuel said.
Samuel’s lab uses a simple system, the nematode C. elegans, to get a comprehensive understanding of all of the pathways that are open to microbial engagement. Samuel and colleagues have shown this to be a powerful platform for identifying the genetics of microbiome influence, and they hope to translate these findings to humans.
“Much of the genetic code and fundamental aspects of our physiology are shared with these more simple organisms, so we are hopeful that our discoveries will help create interventions targeted at modulating the microbiome,” he said.
“Dr. Samuel was recruited to the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research because of his exceptionally innovative insights and approaches to dissect how the host microbiota impact health and development,” said Dr. Joseph Petrosino, director of the center and professor and interim chair of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor. “We are thrilled that the NIH has recognized Dr. Samuel’s research with a New Innovator Award and eagerly await the exciting new discoveries that will come from this work in the years to come.”
Samuel said the award is a result of the research environment at Baylor.
“Baylor supports a collaborative team-science approach to making discoveries, and my research program thrives in that environment. I feel so very fortunate to be surrounded by such great colleagues,” he said.
Samuel’s award is funded by grant number DP2-DK-116645.