Huck’s "Greatest HITS”
2012 marked the launch of the Huck Innovative & Transformational Seed (HITS) Fund. It was our call for bold, high-risk life sciences research projects that would be deemed too risky to attract NSF or NIH grants, but which promised potentially high returns for science if successful.
Forty proposals were submitted. Twenty were considered risky enough to consider. The four below were considered promising enough to support. The outcomes speak for themselves.
Single-Cell Virology: Craig Cameron
The Promise: Improve antiviral drug design by monitoring the behavior of viruses at the cellular level.
The Risk: The tools needed to prove out the concept had not yet been fully developed.
The Outcomes: HITS funding supported the building of a new microfluidic device, enabling simultaneous viral monitoring of thousands of cells. Subsequent work led to an NIH grant and papers in the journals Cell Reports and Science Advances.
Plant Village: David Hughes
The Promise: Leverage advances in AI, cloud computing, drones and satellites to take Penn State’s land grant mission of agricultural extension global.
The Risk: Decades of failure building extension systems in low-resource countries.
The Outcomes: A cellphone AI assistant that provides expert-level skills in pests and assesses climate change risk. Adopted by the U.N. with funding from Gates Foundation, Schmidt Futures, CGIAR and the governments of Norway, Ireland and Belgium. Instrumental in mitigating the 2020 East African locust crisis.
Heat Sensing in Plants: Sally Assmann & Phil Bevilacqua
The Promise: Combine RNA chemistry, genomics, and computational biology to glean novel insights into the way plants sense and react to heat and drought conditions in the environment.
The Risk: The researchers had very little preliminary data and sought to combine disciplinary approaches in a completely new way that broke down traditional barriers between biology and chemistry.
The Outcomes: HITS funding enabled the researchers to investigate the link between hotter temperatures and RNA structures in plants. The work led to a 2013 paper in Nature and NSF funding in 2014. Their continued work holds the potential to help us understand how farmers might one day produce crops more resistant to heat and drought
Optimal Porosity: James Marden
The Promise: Gain new insights on animal design & metabolism by determining how and why organisms replace useful cells with empty spaces to create pathways for oxygen delivery.
The Risk: The researcher had no preliminary data.