April 5, 2002

Vanderbilt, Meharry share $2.5 million grant

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Dr. Jacek Hawiger will direct the IBVS training program. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Vanderbilt, Meharry share $2.5 million grant

A five-year, $2.5 million grant has been awarded jointly to Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Meharry Medical College by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to train the next generation of scientists in the field of Immunology of Blood and Vascular Systems. The grant, to begin June 1, will support four predoctoral students, four postdoctoral students, and six undergraduate students.

“The science of immunobiology is firmly based in recent advances in functional genomics and proteomics of the immune system,” said Dr. Jacek Hawiger, Oswald T. Avery Professor and Chair of Microbiology and Immunology and director of the IBVS training program. “We’d like to provide an opportunity to introduce new and future scientists to high-caliber problems in this research area and to state-of-the-art technology.”

The collaborative training program involves faculty from the department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Genetics at Meharry and six different departments and the Transplant Center at Vanderbilt. The level of collaboration among these departments, as well as within Vanderbilt’s department of Microbiology and Immunology, is remarkable, according to Hawiger, and part of the reason the grant was awarded.

“This is the first immunobiology-oriented training program in the history of the department at this university,” he said. “The reason we were able to get this is that we obtained a critical mass of superbly trained and very accomplished faculty in the fields of molecular immunology, immunogenetics, and genomics and proteomics.”

The highly interactive researchers have complementary interests in the molecular mechanisms affecting the blood and vascular system in health and disease. Inflammation, caused by a response of the blood immune cells, is at the heart of many diseases, from coronary heart disease to endocarditis to such autoimmune diseases as systemic lupus and multiple sclerosis. Investigators from areas as diverse as surgery and transplantation to vaccine development will participate in the training program.

Collaborations between investigators at Meharry and Vanderbilt are already in the works, focusing largely on diseases that occur more frequently in minority or disadvantaged populations. For example, Chris Aiken, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt and Chi-Ho Chen, Ph.D., of Meharry are studying the molecular mechanism of HIV entry into host T cells and monocytes. Also, Fernando Villalta, Ph.D., of Meharry is working with Dr. Don Rubin and Earl Ruley, Ph.D., at Vanderbilt to identify new genes involved in host response to a microorganism-Trypanosoma cruzi-responsible for Chagas disease, which affects the heart and leads ultimately to its failure.

“The IBVS program is primarily founded on the tremendous reciprocity between Immunology and Medicine,” said Dean Ballard, Ph.D., professor of Microbiology and Immunology. “Given recent technological advances in the study of gene structure and function, investigators in the program are in a strong position to unravel the molecular mechanisms of diseases that have an immunological basis.”

Ballard, who currently heads the immunology section for the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program core curriculum and serves on the Post-doctoral Advisory Committee at Vanderbilt, will serve as associate director of the IBVS program.

The Steering Committee for the program will be responsible for all major decisions, including selection of trainees and preceptors and evaluation of program goals. Hawiger, as director, and Ballard, as associate director, will make all routine decisions. Others on the Committee include Virginia Shepherd, Ph.D., Steven Hanks, Ph.D., and Sebastian Joyce, Ph.D., from Vanderbilt, and Fernando Villalta, Ph.D., from Meharry.

Postdoctoral fellows will be selected by the Steering Committee from a pool of nominees based on their background training and the relatedness of their research interests to the IBVS scientific program.

The predoctoral students who take part in the training program will be selected from those students in their first year of the graduate program at Meharry and the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program at Vanderbilt.

Undergraduate students who are considering a career in the sciences often work in labs over summer break to get a taste of what medical research is like. This training grant will support summer research projects for students from a variety of colleges and universities.

“We’d like to cast our net not only for the pool of students at Vanderbilt and Meharry,” Hawiger said. “We’d like to attract undergraduate students from other schools—including minority-based universities. We will be contacting these institutions looking for academically accomplished and motivated undergraduates to attract them to the science of immunology.”

Hawiger feels that the relative youth of the faculty in the program will be an asset in training up-and-coming scientists.

“More than half of the faculty who will serve as preceptors came here in the early stages of their academic development and are now independent, well-established investigators eager to make new discoveries,” he said. “They will be excellent role models for these young trainees.”

Other key personnel participating in the IBVS training program include Christopher Aiken, Thomas Aune, Joey Barnett, Mark Boothby, Philip Browning, David Carbone, James Crowe, Jr., Mark Denison, Steven Hanks, Brigid Hogan, Sebastian Joyce, Wasif Khan, Andrew Link, Geraldine Miller, Nancy Olsen, Eugene Oltz, Richard Pierson, David Piston, Louise Rollins-Smith, Subramaniam Sriram, Michael Stein, James Tam, James Thomas, Derya Unutmaz, Luc Van Kaer, and Douglas Vaughan from Vanderbilt; and Maria de Fatima Lima and Shirley Russell from Meharry. Barney Graham from the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health will act as a consultant to the program.