Four UTHSCT biomedical researchers awarded more than $2.1 million in grants despite fierce competition for funding

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Four biomedical investigators at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler recently were awarded a total of more than $2.1 million in grants despite intense competition for research dollars.

The UTHSCT researchers will use those funds to:
  • examine ways to prevent the rejection of transplanted insulin-producing cells that could cure diabetes;
  • develop new strategies to protect lung cells against damage caused by tobacco smoke, including the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the fourth leading cause of death in the United States;
  • explore how to boost the immune system so that it can fight off deadly microbes, such as the H1N1 flu virus; and
  • study how changes in the thymus gland may contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
Almost $1.8 million of the $2.1 million came from the National Institutes of Health, the premier funding agency in the United States for biomedical research.

Each NIH grant is evaluated by other scientists in the same field of study, in a process known as peer review. Grants are awarded based on the scores they receive, and competition is fierce.

“To receive significant NIH funding now is a remarkable achievement that speaks to the high quality of the scientific work our investigators are conducting. They compete against the leading scientists from top-tier institutions,” said UTHSCT Vice President for Research Dr. Steven Idell, MD, Ph.D.

“On average, only the top 15 percent of the proposals submitted to NIH are funded. In some areas of research, the percentage funded is even less,” Dr. Idell said. “More investigators are applying for NIH funding, while the annual NIH budget has remained about the same. In addition, the cost of research has gone up.”

It has also become harder for researchers to acquire private, non-governmental funding, he said.

“Grant applications to foundations and other research sponsors have become almost as competitive – sometimes even more so – than applying to the NIH. While this is a very exciting time to be in biomedical science, researchers face great challenges in acquiring and retaining outside funding to support their work,” Dr. Idell said.

“The fact that UTHSCT investigators continue to be funded shows the high quality and importance of the science being done within the UTHSCT biomedical research community,” he said.

Developing "transplantation tolerance"
One of the members of this community, Zhenhua Dai, Ph.D., MD, an associate professor of immunology, recently was awarded a $1.4 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health.

These funds will support Dr. Dai’s ongoing study into how to prevent the immune system from rejecting transplanted organs.

He is working to develop “transplantation tolerance,” in which transplanted organs are able to survive and function without organ recipients having to take drugs to suppress the immune system for the rest of their lives.

Specifically, Dr. Dai is investigating how to successfully transplant insulin-producing cells – called islet cells – into children with type 1 diabetes. Insulin is a hormone that helps convert food into the energy needed for daily life.

He is exploring how to modify a certain kind of white blood cell – called a regulatory T cell – so that it will prevent other kinds of immune cells from attacking transplanted organs or tissues.

This research could lead to better ways of controlling the immune system response and preserving transplanted organs.

Protecting the lungs from tobacco smoke
Sreerama Shetty, Ph.D., a professor of medicine, received a two-year grant for $387,750 from the NIH to examine the roles of two crucial proteins in protecting the lungs from the harm caused by tobacco smoke.

Tobacco smoke damages the cells lining the lung’s airways, causing inflammation and scarring. Newly identified interactions between these two proteins seem to provide the airways with some protection.

Dr. Shetty and his team want to understand how these proteins work together to shield the cells from the ravages of tobacco smoke. This research could result in new strategies to prevent the development of serious lung diseases such as COPD.

Fighting off flu despite damaged lungs
Amir Shams, Ph.D., an associate professor of microbiology and immunology, was awarded a three-year, $325,000 grant from the Flight Attendants Medical Research Institute.

He is studying how an innovative technique that boosts the immune system could help people with COPD and other lung diseases to fight infections of influenza, or the flu.

Dr. Shams and his team have discovered that a naturally occurring chemical produced by the immune system – a cytokine – can cause extraordinary resistance to lethal doses of the H1N1 and other flu strains.

They are exploring how the cytokine protects lungs damaged from smoking or inhaling second-hand smoke, which is the primary cause of COPD. This research will lead to more effective strategies to prevent and treat the flu in patients with COPD.

Understanding autoimmune diseases
Dongming Su, Ph.D., an associate professor of biochemistry, received an additional award of $71,854 to fund his ongoing research into the thymus, a gland located behind the top of the breastbone.

A major function of the thymus is to kill rogue white blood cells that attack normal cells instead of invading microbes or defective cells.

This grant will support Dr. Su and his team as they investigate whether cysts in the middle of the thymus disrupt this function and possibly play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, or type 1 diabetes.

For 60 years, The University of Texas Health Science Center has provided excellent patient care and cutting-edge treatment, specializing in pulmonary disease, cancer, heart disease, primary care, and the disciplines that support them. UTHSCT’s annual operating budget of $125 million represents a major economic impact of over $287 million to the Northeast Texas region. In FY 2009, scientists in the Center for Biomedical Research were awarded 80 competitive grants and contracts totaling $14.6 million. As the academic medical center for Northeast Texas, its graduate medical education program – with residencies in family medicine and occupational medicine – provide doctors for many communities throughout the region and beyond.

NOTICE: Protected health information is subject to electronic disclosure.