Sept. 12-25, 2003
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Ovarian cancer, ADHD projects among FEST winners

By Fariss Samarrai

Four U.Va. research projects have been awarded grants this year through the Funding Excellence in Science and Technology program, sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.

This year’s winners include a proposal to develop a drug discovery center at the University; a project studying possible therapies for ovarian cancer; a psycho-physiological procedure for assessing attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders; and a project that is looking at ways to use synthetic biomaterials for eventual therapies for an assortment of medical conditions.

The FEST awards, a program now in its third year, are part of the Virginia 2020 Science and Technology Planning Commission plan. The awards provide a source of seed money for innovative and promising research. President John T. Casteen III established the program as part of the 2020 initiative.

Two of this year’s projects are being partly funded by the Carilion Biomedical Institute through a collaborative biomedical translational research grant program with U.Va. This is the first year that CBI — a Roanoke-based nonprofit partnership between the Carilion Health System, U.Va. and Virginia Tech — is funding FEST awards. CBI’s purpose is to strengthen biomedical research at the two universities and promote regional economic development. Carilion also will help U.Va. researchers turn their research projects into commercially viable products and businesses.

Seed money can bring in big
bucks for vital research

By Fariss Samarrai

Two years ago, Robert Jones, professor of physics, received a three-year $320,000 FEST award to begin development of a high-intensity laser capable of investigating the inner workings of molecules.

Today, as a result of that seed money, Jones has a five-year grant for more than $700,000 from the Department of Energy to continue that work. He is now building the laser and initiating the experiments.

“The FEST grant allowed this,” Jones said. “DOE said we had an imaginative proposal, and this is the first time they’ve ever awarded a five-year grant based on a three-year proposal.”

Jones’ imaginative proposal is to use the high-intensity short pulse laser to shatter molecules, allowing him and colleagues to take a look at what’s inside. They can alter what happens inside an atom or molecule, and can change the way molecules behave. They hope to develop new laser-based tools to control molecular motion and gain greater understanding of these fundamental building blocks of matter.

Pamela Norris, associate professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and co-investigator James Landers, professor of chemistry and associate professor of pathology, received a $100,000 Ivy Foundation grant two years ago to develop “lab-on-a-chip” technology.

Today they have an $800,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“The Ivy grant was the seed that allowed us to grow more funding,” Landers said.

Ivy grants, awarded by the independent Ivy Foundation, provide start-up funds for promising biomedical research at the University.

Norris and Landers are working to miniaturize laboratory analysis equipment. The idea is to take various testing methods and equipment, and downsize them to the size of a microchip for clinical diagnostics.

They hope to eventually have portable testing devices available for medical and biodefense applications as well as for environmental monitoring, including testing for biohazards.

Thomas C. Skalak, professor of biomedical engineering and chairman of his department, is known for turning a little seed money into a lot of funding. Skalak and his colleagues, all studying various aspects of tissue growth, received a $200,000 FEST grant three years ago. Today they are continuing their research with $3.6 million from NIH. Their work is important — trying to understand how genes direct the assembly of cells into structures that form tissues and organs. FEST administrators know the work holds great promise for future breakthroughs in the treatment of several diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and kidney failure. Clearly, NIH thinks so too.

“The goal of the FEST program is to provide researchers with seed funding that could attract more funding from other sources,” said Jeffrey Plank, associate vice president for research and graduate studies. “And CBI will work with investigators to accelerate the commercialization of intellectual property.”

Half of the funding for the translational research program grants comes from CBI, the other half from U.Va.

“We emphasize collaborative multidisciplinary research,” said Sam English, manager of research at CBI. “And we work together with the faculty members in a partnership to make the projects successful.”

He said CBI will help its FEST winners identify and apply for additional funding from other sources, as well as to look for ways to either create start-up companies or license their intellectual property to established companies for possible development.

The FEST awards grew out of the University’s old Academic Enhancement Program, which provided seed money for research projects in the humanities and sciences. The FEST awards are specifically for science and technology research, and are designed to encourage excellence and innovative studies, to foster the creation of multidisciplinary research groups, and to attract major external funding.

The program began with a budget of $1 million. Plank said his office is seeking additional funding, such as the Carilion grants, to keep the program running. Some of the projects funded by FEST last year and the previous year have since received significant funding from other sources and are now viable research programs.

“This is the purpose of the program,” said Plank, “to help faculty work on projects they wouldn’t ordinarily have the resources for.”

Kim Penberthy, assistant professor of psychiatric medicine in the Behavioral Medicine Research Center, was awarded a $137,500 CBI/U.Va. Biomedical Translational Research Grant to develop a psycho-physiological procedure for assessing attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders. She proposes to combine traditional assessment procedures for diagnosing these disorders — which involve a great deal of subjectivity — with new methods developed in her lab that are more accurate and standardized than traditional methods alone.

“Accurately diagnosing ADHD is a major difficulty for clinical psychologists,” she said. “There is a lot of concern that ADHD is over-diagnosed and that too many kids are being put on medication. We’re proposing a cost-effective standardized assessment that incorporates rating scales in a systematic way that can lead to accurate objective diagnosis.”

Penberthy is working on the project with Boris Kovatchev and Daniel Cox in psychiatric medicine, and Donald Brown in systems engineering. They expect to have a prototype device ready in about six months and are now seeking additional funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Timothy Macdonald, professor of chemistry, was awarded a CBI/U.Va. Biomedical Translational Research Grant of $145,367 to research methods for blocking a signaling molecule that promotes the growth of ovarian cancer. He proposes to make a compound, based on a receptor antagonist collaboratively discovered in his lab and in the lab of co-investigator Kevin Lynch, professor of pharmacology, that will inhibit the molecule that signals cancer cells to grow. He said the FEST funding will help him take the first steps toward translating these findings to “the bedside.”

He will work with U.Va. faculty in chemistry and pharmacology.

“This work is far enough along to hopefully interest pharmaceutical companies,” English said.

Macdonald and co-investigators in chemistry, Mario Geysen and Milton Brown, also were awarded a FEST Excellence Grant of $116,000 for a proposal to develop a Center for Drug Discovery at the University. The center would bring together biomedical researchers across Grounds to develop drugs for such diseases as cancer and diabetes. Macdonald said the center would be among the first integrated academic facilities for chemical genetics in the country and would “profoundly influence the nature and the quality of science that the University is capable of.”

The center also would help U.Va. researchers to generate intellectual property and possible spin-off ventures.“We propose to start small and target about five possible drugs for development,” Macdonald said. “We would like to make drugs that the big pharmaceutical companies are not pursuing.”

Cassandra Fraser, associate professor of chemistry, received a $32,828 Excellence Grant for a project to tailor synthetic biomaterials for use as multifunctional delivery agents for cancer therapies, for anti-microbial drug delivery systems and as substrates for growing and regenerating cells. She and co-investigator Anne Pfister collaborate with biologists, engineers and physicians. She hopes her initiatives will help set the stage for a broader biomaterials program at the University.

The work aims to help address challenges in prostate cancer and breast and ovarian cancer research, and possibly the hearing and balance cell regeneration field. Fraser added that her group is eager to help build new interdisciplinary and collaborative networks that include and encourage students and scientists at all levels.

Milton Brown Cassandra Fraser Mario Geysen
Milton Brown Cassandra Fraser Mario Geysen
Boris Kovstchev Kim Penberthy  
Boris Kovstchev Kim Penberthy  



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