Science Stimulus Boosts University Research

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For information about the grants that the University of Chicago received as part of the ARRA package, click here.

If the scientists you know have an extra spring in their step today, here’s why: over $5 billion in National Institutes of Health funding was announced this week, the scientific portion of the federal stimulus package passed in the spring. In his January inaugural address, President Barack Obama made researchers’ neck hair stand up when he promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” and this was the first installment of that pledge – a much-needed boost of cash after five years of flat NIH budgets put many laboratories in jeopardy.

“We’re announcing that we’ve awarded $5 billion — that’s with a b — in grants, through the Recovery Act, to conduct cutting-edge research all across America, to unlock treatments to diseases that have long plagued humanity, to save and enrich the lives of people all over the world,” Obama said Wednesday at an NIH event announcing the grants.

A $42 million slice of that $5 billion pie was awarded to the University of Chicago, and I’ve spent the day talking to some of the researchers who snagged the biggest awards. They are all, as you might guess, thrilled to have an infusion of money to help finally launch projects that have languished unfunded or undermanned. In all, more than 100 UChicago researchers shared in the $42 million pot, with grants ranging from $10,000 to $5.6 million. After the jump is some information on the day’s big winners and the projects their new grants will fund.

Carole Ober and Dan Nicolae: Ober, a professor in both human genetics and obstetrics & gynecology, and Nicolae, an associate professor in genetic medicine, are the principal investigators for a consortium of researchers from 10 U.S. institutions that will study the genetics of asthma – and now have $5.6 million to get started. Genome-wide association studies conducted on more than 30,000 people will be combined to create a database of gene variants associated with asthma, so that scientists can find new disease genes that may serve as treatment targets. The group hopes that finding new asthma genes could help doctor identify at-risk patients before symptoms occur, allowing for earlier treatment.

Jerry Krishnan: Staying with the respiratory disease theme, Krishnan is leading a new research group called CONCERT, uniting six health care centers to do clinical trials on treatments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or COPD. Because COPD is a rising cause of death in the United States (it’s expected to pass stroke to become #3 by 2020, Krishnan said), the NIH has designated it as a research focus worth funding, and the proof is in the nearly $4 million Krishnan’s project received this week.

“We’re giddy,” Krishnan said. “This grant will allow us to conduct, for the first time in the United States, groundbreaking high impact, multi-center research that focuses on comparative effectiveness in COPD.”

Krishnan said the group’s mission will to take the variety of COPD treatments that have been approved individually – such as inhalers, drugs, surgery and exercise programs – and deterimine what combination of treatments are most effective for specific patient populations.

Kevin White: An expert on genetics and system biology, White received two grants to gather data for the ENCODE Project, an NIH effort to build an encyclopedia of genetic elements. While human genome projects have given science a basic understanding of the genetic code, the thousands of regulatory factors that switch genes on and off still remain to be discovered. Methods developed in White’s lab will dramatically speed up those discoveries, he said, and the twin $900,000 grants he received this week will allow him to test the method out in the human and Drosophila (fruit fly) genomes.

“It relieves a bottleneck in these ENCODE Projects to systematically map or decode information in the genome,” White said. “The genome projects have given us a sequence but they don’t tell us what that sequence means, and the ENCODE project aims to be a first draft of what are the functional bits of DNA in human and model organism genomes.”

Kathleen Millen: When we last spoke to Kathy Millen, she and her collaborator William Dobyns had published a Nature Genetics article on a gene responsible for the birth defect Dandy-Walker Malformation. One of the three grants Millen received from the ARRA money will continue that project, she was more excited to talk about a $500,000 award to develop a new, cheaper, faster way of studying disease-related genes in mouse models.

“Human geneticists are getting better at implicating specific genes in disease, but in order to prove they’re actually causative they need to make mutant mouse models,” Millen said. “Right now it’s very time-consuming and very expensive to do, but this grant proposes a new way to get a quick and dirty answer to what phenotype the mutation will cause in mice.”

Millen said the current process for creating a knockout mouse model costs $50,00 and takes a year and a half to complete, while her new process – which knocks down specific genes – could cost as little as $2,000 and require only six weeks. Without the ARRA grant, Millen said she would not have been able to pay for the scientists and materials needed to develop a process that could be applied to virtually any human disease.

“I think it’s a tremendously good thing,” Millen said. “The challenge grants allow the NIH to fund riskier projects than they would normally, and those risky projects can have big payoffs.”

About Rob Mitchum (526 Articles)

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

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