Earlier this summer, Sarah Millar, PhD, professor of Dermatology and Cell and Developmental Biology, received an unusual phone call from Carl Baker, MD PhD, Health Scientist Administrator at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). “So, Sarah, we’ve recommended that you receive a MERIT Award. Do you have any idea what that is?” asked Dr. Baker. Millar guessed that anything termed “MERIT” might possibly be good news, but admitted she had no idea what it actually meant.

It turns out that several Penn Med professors presently have these prestigious awards, in a wide range of topics, including natural reservoirs of SIV, simian immunodeficiency virus; regulation and function of thyroid hormone receptors; and genomic analysis of Alzheimer’s disease genes.

The MERIT awards are designed to give productive and creative scientists long-term support, without the burden of constantly devoting time and staff resources to applying for new grants to fund their research. (This in a funding climate where the 2011 overall success rates, 18%, for research project grants, fell compared to the 21% in 2010).In fact, less than 5% of NIH-funded investigators are selected to receive MERIT Awards.

NIH created the MERIT award program in 1986, with the aim of providing stable long-term grant support to investigators whose research skills and productivity are “distinctly superior” and who are highly likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner.

MERIT awardees cannot apply for the award; they are nominated by the funding NIH institute from a large pool of competing award recipients and then endorsed by an institutes’ advisory council, as in Millar’s case. The benefit of being designated as a MERIT awardee is that recipients are afforded a simplified renewal for a second 5-year period – cutting out the complex reapplication process, as long as they met certain criteria showing that their research has yielded results.

Millar’s lab has, for the last thirteen years, been studying the molecular processes underlying development and postnatal growth of outer layers of the skin, the “epidermis”, and “appendage” organs such as hair follicles, taste buds, mammary glands and teeth that are derived from surface cells of mammalian embryos. Lab members are applying their findings to develop methods for regenerating skin, hair follicles and teeth for therapeutic purposes. As signaling pathways important for normal skin development are disrupted in common skin cancers, Millar’s work also aims to identify novel anticancer strategies.

A major finding from the Millar lab is that Wnt proteins, small molecular messengers that convey information between cells, instruct embryonic surface cells to form appendage organs rather than a layered skin epidermis. In adult life, these same proteins control hair growth and breast development, among other processes. Over-activity of Wnt signals can lead to skin, breast and colon cancers, so tight control of this signaling activity is essential.

Millar’s MERIT award focuses on understanding the normal mechanisms that confine Wnt activity to its appropriate locations and developmental stages and identifying molecules required for cells to respond to Wnt signals in the skin. Millar explains, “In the end, we hope we will be able to apply this information to help design strategies for regenerating more normal skin for burn victims, promoting hair growth in patients with common hair loss diseases, and treating skin cancers that involve overactive Wnt signaling.”