From Brain Diagrams to Skin Seals, Researchers Plan Far-Reaching Projects with Economic Stimulus Grants

University of Utah medical scientists have won more than $7.9 million in federal economic stimulus Challenge Grants for nine research projects -- from the immensely complex task of diagramming genetic connections in the brain to developing a skin seal to prevent infection with artificial limb attachments.

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Oct 27, 2009 10:29 AM

SALT LAKE CITY—University of Utah medical scientists have won more than $7.9 million in federal economic stimulus Challenge Grants for nine research projects – from the immensely complex task of diagramming genetic connections in the brain to developing a skin seal to prevent infection with artificial limb attachments.

The Challenge Grants, funded as part of the American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act, are aimed at jump-starting particular areas of biomedical and behavioral research through high-risk and innovative research. Thousands of scientists from 241 U.S. institutions applied for the funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The U of U’s researchers placed among the top-tier recipients, according to Thomas N. Parks, Ph.D., University vice president for research.

“The number and dollar amount of Challenge Grants received by the University of Utah put us in the top 10 percent of the 241 universities receiving the grants,” Parks said. “That's another piece of evidence for the outstanding ability and resourcefulness of our faculty."

It’s also good for the state’s economy, according to Parks. For every $1 million in grant money that comes to the U of U, 20 jobs will be created in Utah, he said.

For scientists such as Julie R. Korenberg, M.D., Ph.D., USTAR professor of pediatrics and an investigator with the U of U Brain Institute, the Challenge Grants will provide funding to begin projects that can transform medicine. Korenberg’s ultimate goal is to understand the genetic underpinnings of autism, schizophrenia, depression, and other debilitating brain-related illnesses and conditions. To that end, she and Tolga Tasdizen, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor of neurology, plan to use a $1 million Challenge Grant to tackle the daunting work of diagramming genetic connections in the brain that underlie mental illnesses and disorders. Establishing a network diagram of the brain, particularly one of genetic connectivity, is one of the major challenges of modern neurobiology and medicine, according to Korenberg.  

“Nowhere is this need clearer than for the brain system controlling social behavior and emotion, where dysregulation of circuitry has been implicated in the most devastating mental illnesses, depression, schizophrenia and autism that together affect more than 13 million Americans,” she said. “The tools we are creating will provide insights into new drug targets to prevent, treat, and ultimately cure mental illness.”

Other U of U researchers are investigating projects with similar potential for understanding disease and providing new treatments or cures. Those investigators and the Challenge Grant project grants they received are listed (grant totals are for two years, unless specified):

Skin Seal to Prevent Infections
•    Roy D. Bloebaum, Ph.D., research professor of orthopedics, received $495,918 (one year) to work on developing a skin seal to prevent infections where artificial limbs connect to the body. The lifetime health-care costs associated with replacement of prostheses for people who’ve lost one limb is $500,000, according to Blobeaum. With the establishment of infection-free skin seal, health-care costs could be significantly reduced and the lives of 1.7 million amputees could be improved immensely.

Pediatric Hydrocephalus
•    John Kestle, M.D., professor of neurosurgery, received $994,700 to conduct comparative effectiveness research into treatments for pediatric hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). Research into pediatric hydrocephalus largely has been conducted separately at individual medical centers. Kestle’s goal is to link numerous institutions researching the problem and determine the most efficacious ways to treat pediatric hydrocephalus, which results in an estimated 40,000 annual hospital admission and adds approximately $2 billion to the nation’s yearly health-care bill.

Colon Cancer
•    Deborah Neklason, Ph.D., research associate professor in oncological sciences, and Randall W. Burt, M.D., professor of internal medicine, were awarded $998,700 for a project to develop a new approach to diagnose and understand how colon cancer develops and progresses. Burt will look at differences in the molecular messages in normal colon tissue from unaffected people and people with an inherited predisposition to colon cancer, and also investigate the differences in molecular messages when colon tissue starts to become cancerous. These differences will be the basis of a new diagnostic test and will identify important processes in cancer development that can be targeted with drugs for treatment.

Traumatic Brain Injury   
•    Raminder Nirula, M.D., MPH., assistant professor of surgery, was awarded $980,750 for research to compare the efficacy of a decompressive craniectomy (removal of a bone flap in the skull to alleviate brain swelling) versus drug therapy in people with traumatic brain injury (TBI).  An estimated 1.4 million people annually sustain a traumatic brain injury in the United States. Of these people, 50,000 die and 235,000 are hospitalized, leading to an estimated cost of $60 billion in direct medical costs and lost productivity.

Hearing Cell Regeneration
•    Tatjana Piotrowski, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy, and
            Alejandro Sanchez Alvarado, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and anatomy and
Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, received $825,309 to study how a tiny tropical minnow called the zebrafish regenerates hearing cells (hair cells) after they are damaged or die. The two researchers plan to characterize the molecular and cellular interactions occurring during zebrafish hair cell regeneration, with the long-term goal of activating these pathways in mammals. Results from their studies will aid in the identification of stem cells in the mammalian ear and in the development of therapeutic strategies to regenerate hair cells in mammals.

Metabolic Disorders
•    Carl S. Thummel, Ph.D., professor of human genetics and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, was awarded $735,382 to study the fruit fly, also called Drosophila, as a simple model system to define how metabolism is regulated, with the goal of providing new directions for understanding and treating human metabolic disorders. Misregulation of metabolism can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes, which are critical risk factors for human disease, including cardiovascular disorders and cancer.

Epilepsy Drugs
•    John White, Ph.D., professor of bioengineering and executive director of the University of Utah Brain Institute, and Karen Wilcox, Ph.D., associate professor of toxicology and pharmacology, received $923,787 to develop new ways of assessing drugs for temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), a devastating disorder that is untreatable in some patients. White and Wilcox will use a groundbreaking imaging technique, called targeted path scanning (TPS), to search for underlying mechanisms of TLE and to study how proposed drug therapies interact with networks of neurons and cells thought to be involved in the disorder.

Inflammation, Blood Clots
•    Guy A. Zimmerman, M.D.; Dean Y. Li, M.D., Ph.D.; and Andrew S. Weyrich, Ph.D., all professors of internal medicine, were awarded $997,001 to investigate a molecular pathway he and colleagues at the University have identified that influences blood clot formation and inflammation, which contribute directly to heart attack, stroke, sepsis (blood poisoning), acute lung injury, and a host of other devastating human disorders. The pathway the investigators plan to study is a potential target for new drug treatments, and his research also will provide new information on how clot formation and inflammation are controlled in health, and become uncontrolled and injurious in disease.

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