October 12, 2007

Research funding continues to surge

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Agnes Fogo, M.D.

Research funding continues to surge

Richard Peek, M.D.

Richard Peek, M.D.

Brent Polk, M.D.

Brent Polk, M.D.

The research enterprise at Vanderbilt University Medical Center is on a roll.

In the past three months, Medical Center scientists have received $82 million in federal grants to support a wide range of clinical and translational investigations, from gastrointestinal cancer and blood pressure regulation to basic brain biology.

Included in that list are grants from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to continue the Research Center of Excellence in Pediatric Nephrology and the Digestive Disease Research Core Center.

“We are very excited to have these important research centers receive renewed funding,” said Jeffrey Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research. “These center-type grants truly reflect the collaborative nature of our research enterprise, leveraging our many complementary strengths to answer the most complex questions in biomedical science.”

The pediatric nephrology research center, one of two in the country, is directed by Agnes Fogo, M.D., professor of Pathology, Pediatrics and Medicine, and director of the Pathology Department's Renal/Electron Microscopy Division.

Initially funded in 1992, the center focuses on the fibrotic sequelae (consequences of scarring) of childhood renal disease. It received its third renewal grant of $4.7 million for five years.

The digestive disease research center, one of 17 in the country, is directed by Brent Polk, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition and interim chair of the Department of Pediatrics.

Initially funded in 2002, the center focuses on understanding the molecular and cellular basis for digestive disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease. It received a renewal grant of $5.75 million for five years.

What distinguishes both centers is collaboration across a broad range of disciplines, funding of pilot grants to encourage “out-of-the-box” thinking, and use of cutting-edge technologies available through Vanderbilt's shared resources and cores to study animal and cellular models, and the expression of specific genes and proteins.

“That's one of the wonderful things about Vanderbilt,” said Fogo, “… that we can put our heads together” with scientists in other departments and at other universities.

“Having a center like this (also) provides a spectacular place for people to train,” Polk added.

The digestive disease research center includes 77 investigators in 13 departments.

Their studies range from inflammatory and metabolic factors associated with obesity, to the infectious underpinnings of ulcers and gastric cancer.

Last year, Polk, Richard Peek, M.D., and their colleagues found a receptor used by the ulcer-causing bacterium H. pylori to bind to the stomach lining. Their discovery, reported in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, could lead to new ways to treat H. pylori infections.

Peek, director of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition in the Department of Medicine, is the center's associate director.

He also directs the center's Pilot and Feasibility Project Program, which provides short-term funding to allow scientists to explore new avenues of inquiry. Many of these projects eventually win longer-term, external funding, Polk said.

In the pediatric nephrology research center, Vanderbilt scientists are collaborating with colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle to find ways — at the cellular and molecular levels — to prevent or repair the consequences of kidney disease.

Although chronic kidney disease is uncommon in children, when it occurs, “it is devastating,” Fogo said. Scarring associated with many of these diseases often results in the need for dialysis or kidney transplant — even in infants.

Fogo said her group was “extremely happy and grateful” to receive the renewal grant, and thankful for the administrative support she has received from the Departments of Pathology and Pediatrics, considering the recent cutbacks in federal research funding.

“It's a very challenging time,” she said. “I'm grateful that our administration realizes how challenging it is.”