University of Vermont

University Communications

Stimulus and Response

Release Date: 04-14-2010

Author: Jennifer Nachbur
Phone: 802/656-7875 Fax: 802-656-3961


Rae Nishi, professor of anatomy and neurobiology and director of the Neuroscience Graduate Program, was awarded an NIH Challenge Grant to study nicotine and the adolescent brain. (Photo: Rajan Chawla)

Last fall, President Obama announced $5 billion in new medical research grants through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), an act which had already provided $8.2 billion in extramural funding to the NIH to help stimulate the U.S. economy. The University of Vermont has been awarded more than $20 million in ARRA funds for scientific research; of that total, College of Medicine investigators have received more than $15.5 million in new funding, for at least 52 projects led by 40 principal investigators across 14 academic divisions.

As part of ARRA, the NIH designated at least $200 million in fiscal years 2009–2010 for a new initiative called the "NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research." Through this program, roughly 200 grants are being allocated for "Challenge Topics," defined by the NIH as studies that "focus on specific knowledge gaps, scientific opportunities, new technologies, data generation, or research methods that would benefit from an influx of funds to quickly advance the area in significant ways...and should have a high impact in biomedical or behavioral science and/or public health." Approximately 20,000 applications were received for this funding, so it is an indicator of research quality that the College of Medicine received three of these highly-competitive grants, as well as a large grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

The first Challenge Grant to be awarded delivered $1 million to fund a multidisciplinary neuroscience research project led by Rae Nishi, professor of anatomy and neurobiology and director of the Neuroscience Graduate Program. Nishi's Challenge Grant, titled "Adolescent Brains, Nicotine and Endogenous Prototoxins," aims to gain an understanding of how adolescent brains differ from adults' brains in terms of their greater susceptibility to the addictive effects of nicotine.

"This is a collaborative effort among myself and five other scientists," says Nishi. "It will support equipment purchases from two local Vermont companies, as well as create three to four full-time research positions and undergraduate and graduate research opportunities." Collaborators on the grant include Dr. Paul Newhouse, professor of psychiatry and director of the Clinical Neuroscience Research Unit; Alexandra Potter, assistant professor of psychiatry; Felix Eckenstein, professor of neurology; Donna Toufexis, assistant professor of psychology; and Haydeh Payami, a genetic epidemiologist at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, N.Y.

Healthy transportation

Despite the belief that biofuels -- liquid replacements for petroleum made from vegetable sources -- may be better for the environment and for human health, there is very limited information about the biological effects of biodiesel emissions. The second NIH Challenge Grant awarded to the college, this one specifically from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, will fund a collaborative project led by Dr. Naomi Fukagawa, professor of medicine and director of the Gerontology Unit, to compare and contrast the biological effects of emission particles from the combustion of petro- and biodiesel and the influence of age and gender on these responses.

"Our goal is to lay the groundwork for future studies," says Fukagawa. "We'll be looking at the mechanisms responsible for the significant relationship between airborne particles and lung and heart disease and we'll be developing approaches to reduce the adverse health consequences of air pollution."

Racial disparity

According to the Surgeon General's 2008 Call to Action to Prevent Deep Venous Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism, more than 300,000 Americans each year suffer from venous thromboembolism (VTE), with potentially more than 100,000 fatalities per year caused by the condition. For reasons that are not yet understood, African Americans have an approximately 30 percent to 60 percent increased incidence of VTE.

The main limitation to studying this disparity is the paucity of African Americans in most large-scale epidemiological studies. The new Challenge Grant awarded to assistant professor of medicine and hematologist Dr. Neil Zakai, by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute will support his secondary analyses on VTE event data from two large studies. Zakai will develop a prospective cohort study with sufficient numbers of African Americans and European Americans to evaluate racial disparities in VTE in the United States. An understanding of the reasons for this disparity will guide next steps to formulate public health policies to address it.

Childhood behavior disorders

The $3.8 million, two-year ARRA grant from the National Institute of Mental Health will allow researchers at the college in partnership with Virje University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Avera Institute for Human Behavioral Genetics in Sioux Falls, S.D., and University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, to search the entire genomes of 4,714 twins and their family members for clues to the genetic factors that contribute to ADHD, anxiety/depression and other childhood behavioral disorders.

Dr. James Hudziak, professor of psychiatry, medicine and pediatrics and director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, is the project's principal investigator. He and the research team will rely on a unique application of genetic tools -- single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) and copy number variation (CNV) with genome wide association study -- to help search for clues to the genetic sources of psychiatric conditions that develop during childhood.

"We will use genome-wide association approaches to look at the possible association of almost one million SNPs with specifi c behaviors and disorders to identify one small thing that changes in the genome," says Hudziak. "CNV identifies larger genetics changes that you would never pick up by looking at chromosomes using microscopy. This approach will allow us to look at a wide variety of genes involved in a behavioral disorder such as Autism Spectrum Disorder."

The research team hopes the study's results will lead to improved diagnostic and treatment approaches for childhood psychiatric disorders. UVM psychiatry faculty members Dr. Robert Althoff and Dr. David Rettew serve as co-investigators on the study.

Economic outcomes

Nishi has already spent tens of thousands of dollars on equipment from local firms, and new research technicians and nurse positions will be created or protected by the funding for other Challenge Grant programs. The NIMH grant, which brings in $2.8 million in funding the first year and $1 million the second year, will create seven new jobs at the three U.S. sites. As with all NIH funding, the primary focus is on developing new understanding and opportunities for treatment. But the economic eff ect of the grants will be palpable. "Investment in biomedical research actually stimulates new job growth very effectively," Senior Associate Dean for Research Ira Bernstein, noted to the Burlington Free Press. "The scientific community is an entrepreneurial community. They rose to the occasion to compete for these awards."

A version of this article originally appeared in Vermont Medicine. Visit the College of Medicine website to view it.