January 19, 2012

Digestive disease research bolstered by grant renewal

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Richard Peek, M.D., directs the Vanderbilt Digestive Disease Research Center. (photo by Joe Howell)

Digestive disease research bolstered by grant renewal

The Vanderbilt Digestive Disease Research Center (VDDRC) celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with a second five-year renewal of its federal research grant.

The center, which includes 119 faculty investigators from 14 different departments, will be supported through June 2017 with a $5.9 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“This is a true collaborative center” that facilitates a wide range of research, from inflammation and cancer in the gastrointestinal tract to obesity,” said Richard Peek, M.D., who became the center’s third director in 2010.

The VDDRC has provided several million dollars in pilot funds to junior investigators to bridge the gap between training grant support and career development awards from the NIH and other funding agencies.

A conjoined VDDRC-Vanderbilt Discovery Grant is available for translational studies, while last year the center partnered with the Vanderbilt Institute of Clinical and Translational Research (VICTR) to support clinical research.

“We have established a robust funding program that extends from basic mechanistic studies to the bedside,” said Peek, the Mina Cobb Wallace Professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology and chief of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition in the Department of Medicine.

Recent findings by center investigators include identification of clues to stomach inflammation and cancer caused by the bacterium H. pylori, new markers for inflammation and tumorigenesis, and a link between inflammation and obesity.

The first project funded by the VDDRC-VICTR partnership is examining the role of intestinal “microflora” in the development of necrotizing entercolitis, a devastating inflammatory disease associated with premature birth that causes destruction of bowel tissue.

The research by Alfred George, M.D., chief of the Division of Genetic Medicine, and Jorn-Hendrik Weitkamp, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics, could lead to ways to prevent the disease, for example, by stimulating growth of “beneficial” bacteria in the gut.

The VDDRC also has partnered with the Vanderbilt O’Brien Kidney Disease Center, directed by Raymond Harris, M.D., and the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center, directed by Alvin Powers, M.D., to establish research cores and sponsor seminar speakers of mutual interest. Harris and Powers serve on the VDDRC internal advisory board.

“I think our ability to draw investigators from multiple different areas of research truly provides our center with a unique … perspective on digestive diseases,” Peek said.

Established in 2002, the VDDRC’s first director was Raymond DuBois Jr., M.D., Ph.D., now at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The second director, Brent Polk, M.D., is now at the University of Southern California and serves on the center’s external advisory board.

Peek said the scientific leadership of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, his associate directors, research group leaders, core directors and the advisory boards – all have played instrumental roles in helping VDDRC grow and thrive.

In particular, associate directors Naji Abumrad, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery, and Keith Wilson, M.D., professor of Medicine, were heavily involved in growth of the center and the renewal, he said.

VDDRC research group leaders include Timothy Cover, M.D. (epithelial integrity), James Goldenring, M.D., Ph.D. (growth, proliferation and apoptosis), Alyssa Hasty, Ph.D. (gastrointestinal physiology, obesity and metabolism) and Michelle Southard-Smith, Ph.D. (gastrointestinal development and function).

Research cores that provide support for VDDRC investigators include Bioanalytical/Mass Spectrometry, directed by Richard Caprioli, Ph.D., Cell Imaging, directed by David Piston, Ph.D., and Flow Cytometry, directed by James Crowe, M.D.

A recently expanded core, Preclinical Models of Digestive Diseases, is directed by Kay Washington, M.D., Ph.D., and now includes non-invasive in vivo imaging under the direction of H. Charles Manning, Ph.D.

A new core, Murine GI Surgical Modeling, also is being established and will be directed by Abumrad and David Wasserman, Ph.D.