Outstanding researchers receive inaugural Wellcome Trust Investigator Awards

The Wellcome Trust today announces the first recipients of its Investigator Awards, £56 million worth of funding for exceptional researchers addressing the most important questions about health and disease.

The researchers will be looking at ambitious and diverse research topics, from using stem cells to help the body mend itself to how physical activity during pregnancy affects a child's health in later life and understanding the underlying neurobiology of conditions such as epilepsy.

The Wellcome Trust has appointed 27 Investigators (7 New Investigators and 20 Senior Investigators). Most of the Investigators are based at institutions across the UK - from London to Liverpool and Edinburgh to Manchester - and one is a researcher in Brazil. The awards will range from around £1 million to £3m.

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, says: "The Wellcome Trust Investigators, together with our existing Fellowship holders, represent some of the very brightest minds in biomedical science. They are seeking answers to challenging research questions that could potentially transform our understanding of the mechanisms of health and disease.

"We are demonstrating our confidence in these outstanding individuals by providing longer-term, flexible funding; in return, we expect that they will make significant advances in knowledge in their field and act as ambassadors within the research community, helping us achieve our aim of improving human and animal health."

Prospective Investigators were interviewed by expert panels led by Professor Deborah Smith, Head of the Biology Department at the University of York, and Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society.

"Throughout the rigorous selection process all of these individuals demonstrated research excellence, vision and leadership," says Professor Smith. "It was very rewarding to be involved in interviewing such an exceptional group of scientists. They are highly deserving of the Wellcome Trust's support."

Investigator Awards provide funding for scientists with an excellent track record and in an established post. The awards offer the flexibility and time to enable them to tackle important research questions.

Wellcome Trust Investigators will help the Trust tackle its five major challenges, as set out in its Strategic Plan: maximising the health benefits of genetics and genomics; understanding the brain; combating infectious disease; investigating development, ageing and chronic disease; and connecting environment, nutrition and health.

The recipients include:

Professor Alister Craig (Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine)
Senior Investigator Professor Craig will be examining how cytoadherence - the process whereby red blood cells infected with the malaria parasite adhere to the walls of blood vessels - leads to severe cases of malaria. Professor Craig hopes the knowledge gained will help in the design of new drug treatments for severe malaria targeted at preventing or reversing the adhesion of the red blood cells to blood vessels in the brain. Around one million people die each year from severe malaria, mainly young children and pregnant women in low-income countries.

Dr Pedro Hallal (Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil)
Dr Hallal, a New Investigator based in Brazil, will be following three existing birth cohorts and a new cohort to be launched in 2015 in south Brazil, in order to find out how we can encourage people to be more physically active and to examine the benefits to individuals and to societies if people do become more active.

Professor Laurence Pearl (University of Sussex)
Professor Pearl, one of the Senior Investigators, will study at a structural level the molecule Hsp90, believed to have a key role in cancer as well as viral and parasitic infections. In particular, he will be examining whether the molecule is an appropriate drug target for a wide range of diseases.

Professor Fiona Powrie (University of Oxford)
Our intestines contain a huge number of microbes that play an important part in our health. In inflammatory bowel disease, the beneficial relationship we have with these bacteria breaks down, resulting in chronic and painful intestinal inflammation. Senior Investigator Professor Powrie will be investigating how the 'dialogue' between the intestinal immune system and intestinal bacteria breaks down and why this leads to disease.

Professor Sara Rankin (Imperial College London)
Senior Investigator Professor Sara Rankin is building on previous funding from the Wellcome Trust, including a Research Career Development Fellowship and University Award, with the aim of developing innovative ways to activate stem cells in the bone marrow to stimulate regeneration of tissues such as the bone and heart.

Professor Peter Rothwell (University of Oxford)
A physician and epidemiologist, Senior Investigator Professor Rothwell will be addressing the most important - but, he believes, tractable - issues in stroke prevention, including how best to diagnose and treat high blood pressure and whether taking a daily aspirin reduces the risk of cancer as well as heart attacks and strokes.

Dr Christiana Ruhrberg (University College London)
The interaction between nerve cells and cells in our blood vessels controls the development of the brain and retina, regulates traffic across the blood-brain and blood-retina barriers and promotes the formation of new nerve cells. New Investigator Dr Ruhrberg will explore the mechanisms that regulate these interactions in normal development to identify therapeutic targets for diseases such as age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy, in which the nerve cells and blood vessels fail to communicate normally and blood vessels function poorly.