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Oct. 3, 2023

Benaroya Research Institute Immunologist John Ray Receives 2023 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

The award will fund new research that seeks to better understand how genetic risk drives the development of
autoimmune disease, aiming to identify new therapeutic pathways for treatment.

Benaroya Research Institute (BRI) Assistant Member John Ray, PhD, has been selected by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of the Director (OD) and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) to receive the 2023 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, established in 2007, supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency who have not yet received an NIH R01 or equivalent grant.

The award is part of the NIH Common Funds High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, and is given to scientists proposing exceptionally creative, high-risk, high-impact biomedical and behavioral research. 

Dr. Ray is an Assistant Member and principal investigator at BRI. His research focuses on understanding how certain genetic factors contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases, which impact nearly 24 million Americans. Previous studies of the human genome have identified hundreds of thousands of variable genetic regions that are linked to risk of developing autoimmune disease. Using large scale approaches to test the effects of the implicated genetic variants, Ray’s team has already narrowed that pool to variants most likely to drive disease risk. Now, the challenge lies in identifying how these regions drive autoimmune disease, the major focus of his New Innovator Award proposal.

In addition to the recognition, Ray will also receive a $1.5 million award (DP2AI183504) to dedicate to this ongoing research. Specifically, this grant will power his lab to further characterize the effect of genetic variants on the function of T cells—a type of immune cell that plays key roles in many autoimmune diseases. With this award, they hope to be able to connect specific genetic variants to discrete pathogenic cellular functions, furthering our understanding of how genetic risk drives the development and exacerbation of autoimmune disease. 

“Big risks can drive big discoveries, and this award will allow us to continue taking those big risks,” said Ray. “We’re really excited to be recognized by this program and that we’ll be able to continue taking creative approaches to solving big problems like determining what drives risk for autoimmune diseases.” 

Ray received his BS in Molecular, Cellular and Development Biology at the University of Washington in 2007 and his PhD in Immunobiology at Yale University in 2014, working in the laboratory of Joe Craft, MD. He completed his postdoctoral research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in the lab of Nir Hacohen, PhD, studying autoimmune disease genetic risk in non-coding regions and epigenetic regulation of immune cell subsets.

For more information on BRI and Ray’s research efforts, visit www.benaroyaresearch.org.