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Influx of major NIH grants fuels growth of research enterprise

Jul. 14, 2016, 9:44 AM

During the past last two weeks, researchers at Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) have brought in a number of new research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that together achieve $137 million in new funding. The funding is a trans-institutional accomplishment of the Schools of Engineering and Medicine and the College of Arts and Science.

The largest grant, $71.6 million over five years, was awarded last week. It expands the role of the Medical Center and its partners around the country in the Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort Program, a national effort to compile genetic, environmental and lifestyle data on at least a million people.

Two other multi-million-dollar grants were awarded July 1 through the national Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program. One seven-year grant, shared with the Duke Clinical Research Institute, aims to improve the efficiency of multisite clinical trials, while another five-year grant seeks innovations to increase recruitment of clinical trial participants.

A fourth large award will provide $12 million over five years to researchers in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) and collaborators at Boston University and the University of Southern California to discover genetic factors that increase the risk for breast cancer among African-Americans.

“In an era of ever-increasing competition for research support, both federal and private, the ability of our researchers to consistently achieve such outstanding results is remarkable,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., President and CEO of VUMC and dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“These funds will help fuel a diverse array of discoveries and drive innovations in how diseases are treated and research itself is performed,” Balser said. They “also represent the full faith of the NIH in the productivity, innovation and integrity of the work that takes place here at Vanderbilt each day.”

The four new grants — to primary investigators who are faculty members of the School of Medicine — will total $23.2 million in the 2016 fiscal year, and $124 million over seven years. But that’s not the whole story.

Eight other new NIH grants awarded on July 1 will bring in an additional $13 million over the next five years. The grants are listed below:

  • To Qiuyin Cai, Ph.D., associate professor of Medicine, and Lynn Rosenberg, Sc.D., Boston University (co-principal investigator), a four-year, $2.7 million grant to determine whether the oral “microbiome,” bacterial growth in the mouth, influences lung cancer risk;
  • To Chin Chiang, Ph.D., professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the School of Medicine, a four-year, $1.6 million grant to study the function of the cerebellum, the seat of motor coordination and learning, and the site of autism spectrum disorder;
  • To QiPing Feng, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Medicine, a five-year, $1.6 million grant to study the benefits and risks of inhibiting the enzyme PCSK9, a new drug target for lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels;
  • To Douglas McMahon, Ph.D., Stevenson Professor and chair of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science, a five-year, $2.3 million grant to study how the circadian photoperiod (light cycle) impacts serotonin neuron function and thus depression and anxiety disorders;
  • To Jens Meiler, Ph.D., associate professor of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Science, a two-year, $390,000 grant in collaboration with James Crowe, Jr., M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, to study the structural determinants of human antibodies that neutralize the Ebola virus;
  • To Michael Miga, Ph.D., Harvie Branscomb Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Ingrid Meszoely, M.D., associate professor of Surgery (co-principal investigator), a two-year, $411,000 grant to study a computational model-enhanced approach for tumor localization during lumpectomy;
  • To Kimryn Rathmell, M.D., Ph.D., Cornelius Abernathy Craig Professor of Medicine, and Cheryl Walker, Ph.D., Texas A&M (co-principal investigator), a five-year, $2.2 million grant to study how mutation or loss of a methyltransferase enzyme results in genomic “instability” and renal cancer; and
  • Danny Winder, Ph.D., professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics in the School of Medicine, a five-year, $1.8 million grant to study regulation of noradrenergic receptors in a part of the brain associated with drug-seeking behavior.

“The grants to Chin Chiang and Danny Winder are reminders of our strengths in neuroscience from research at the most fundamental level to application of the findings of that research in the clinical setting,” said Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., dean of Basic Sciences in the School of Medicine. “Our faculty remains highly competitive for significant research funding even at a time of tight pay lines. I am very proud of all of them.”

“Our continuing partnership with VUMC researchers highlights the collaborative nature of engineering faculty and the need for new technologies in solving tomorrow’s complex problems,” said Philippe Fauchet, Ph.D., dean of the School of Engineering.

“It is wonderful that the NIH has again recognized the cutting-edge research being done by Vanderbilt Arts and Science faculty,” added Lauren Benton, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Science. “The projects of Professor McMahon in Biological Sciences and Professor Meiler in Chemistry exemplify the twinned pursuit of scientific advancement and clinical promise — an approach that has become the hallmark of so much of the research of our faculty in the natural sciences.”

According to the deans, this kind of successful week was possible because of so many people at Vanderbilt who work every day to support all facets of research, including technical support, grant preparation, and world-class infrastructure and core services.

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