Tânia Reis, PhD, an associate professor of endocrinology, metabolism, and diabetes at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is one of eight recipients of the National Institutes of Health’s prestigious Director’s Pioneer Award for 2023
The grant provides Reis with $3.5 million over the next five years to continue her research into ways that organs communicate with one another to maintain energy balance. She is the first researcher from the CU Anschutz Medical Campus to win the Director’s Pioneer Award.
“I like to think big and focus on the unknown; that’s what truly excites me,” Reis says. “You don’t always have the freedom to do that kind of science. This funding is giving me the freedom to do that. It’s validating that somebody else sees the potential of this research.”
Food for thought
Established in 2004, the Pioneer Award enables investigators to pursue high-risk, high-reward research leading to breakthroughs in biomedical or behavioral science. Reis and her team will use the funds to further Reis’ work with fruit flies, where she is looking to see how the brain uses energy stored in fat cells in other parts of the body as fuel.
“We know a lot about how the brain regulates itself through energy metabolism, but how it sustains itself is something that is not as studied,” Reis says. “If you look at a fly or a mouse or a person that is actively learning, you see that the neurons at the center of cognition incorporate more metabolites — not just glucose, but also long-chain fatty acids. It may be that the molecules in the brain that are required for learning send signals to the fat cells to release energy to sustain the learning.”
She hopes the research could explain the relationship among diet, obesity, and dementia and eventually may help scientists understand why some antiviral drugs have cognitive and/or metabolic side effects.
“It’s thought that obesity is a predisposition to Alzheimer's and early cognitive decline, but our research shows the inverse,” Reis says. “We may come to understand that it's not a predisposition; it’s actually a result of the same dysfunction.”
Diversity of experience
Reis is particularly gratified that the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award will allow her to recruit more trainees to work in her lab.
“The more people you have, the more diverse ideas you have, the more ideas you have, the better your science is,” she says. “The most exciting part of this award is being able to take the science where I’ve always wanted to go but hadn’t had the opportunity.”
Reis earned her undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the University of Porto in Portugal and earned her PhD as part of the country’s groundbreaking Gulbenkian PhD program in biology and medicine. She conducted her PhD research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle and did postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, where she developed a paradigm to study mechanisms of energy homeostasis.