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

October 27, 2009 — University of Utah
medical scientists have won more than $7.9 million in federal economic stimulus
Challenge Grants for 10 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.

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

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.