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Changchun Xiao, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute, has been named one of the Pew Charitable Trust’s 21 Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences, a prestigious designation that comes with $240,000 to spend on research in almost any way he chooses.

Unlike most federal funding, which requires the scientist to follow a specific research plan, the Pew Scholarships give beginning researchers the chance to “take calculated risks, expand their research and explore unanticipated leads,” according to the organization.

This opportunity is rare in the science world and will give Xiao the chance to expand his research on small ribonucleic acids (microRNAs), tiny messengers that tell the body to stop making proteins, which help the body carry out many of its functions, including responding to diseases.

Xiao has found evidence that suggests microRNAs impact the body’s white blood cells, which help attack diseases that find their way into the body’s blood stream. This means microRNAs play an important role in the immune system and the diagnosis and treatment of diseases like lymphoma, diabetes and arthritis.

Using the freedom that comes with the Pew money, Xiao will send his research in a variety of directions that have not yet been explored. He plans to look at the activity of microRNAs in samples of tumors from human patients and study which microRNAs are connected with lymphoma and autoimmune diseases in mice.

“With the funding Pew gives to us, there is little catch,” he said. “We can spend the award money any way we feel is appropriate, which gives us the freedom and flexibility to pursue our research.”

Xiao hopes his work will provide doctors with better clues to look for when diagnosing diseases like diabetes, arthritis and lupus that stem directly from immune system breakdowns, in addition to suggesting potential treatments.

Thirty-nine scientists from San Diego-based research institutes (including Shane Crotty and Kristiina Vuori, who have appeared in recent stories here) have won Pew Scholarships since the program started 25 years ago.

— CLAIRE TRAGESER

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