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Larimer receives prestigious $1.5 million NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

  • October 14, 2020
Benjamin Larimer, Ph.D., has received a $1.5 million award to conduct research on a PET-based diagnostic tool that could identify patients who will respond to immunotherapy.
Written by: Curran Umphrey
Media contact: Beena Thannickal

lamar 2Benjamin Larimer, Ph.D., assistant professor of radiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and associate scientist in the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, has received the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, which will provide Larimer with $1.5 million in research funding over a five-year period. With this funding, Larimer will work on the development of a PET-based diagnostic tool that has the potential to identify patients who would respond to immunotherapy, as well as those who would not. 

Larimer’s research focuses on granzyme B, a powerful enzyme that induces tumor killing. Larimer has designed a PET imaging agent that detects only the active form of granzyme B, which effectively distinguishes between present-but-exhausted immune cells and tumor-killing immune cells. 

The goal of Larimer’s project, called Site-specific Immune Cell Activation Detection for Improving Individualized Cancer Immunotherapy, is to now use this first-in-human granzyme B PET tracer to determine whether a patient should receive immunotherapy, whether the immunotherapy is working after it is administered and whether a patient is at risk for severe side effects.

“This would, in theory, allow for the personalization of treatment so patients who would benefit from immunotherapy can get the right treatment at the right time and so those who wouldn’t benefit can be treated with a different therapy that might be more effective,” Larimer said.

Larimer is among 53 scientists in the country who received the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which was established in 2007 to support unusually innovative research from exceptionally creative early-career investigators who propose high-impact projects in the biomedical, behavioral or social sciences within the NIH mission.

“I am really grateful for this opportunity from the NIH,” Larimer said. “UAB Radiology and the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center offer the perfect combination of expertise and resources that gives us the best shot at success.”