University of Vermont

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Vermont Genetics Network Advances Biomedical Research

Timothy Hunter, one of the Vermont Genetics Network's core facility managers, works in the Microarray Facility in the College of Medicine's Health Science Research Facility. (Photo: Rajan Chawla)
Timothy Hunter, one of the Vermont Genetics Network's core facility managers, works in the Microarray Facility in the College of Medicine's Health Science Research Facility. (Photo: Rajan Chawla)

Laughing babies, strange bacteria from the bottom of asbestos mines, and schizophrenic rats could be found in the DoubleTree Hotel in South Burlington. Well, really these were just topics in a few of the posters and talks presented during the annual retreat of the Vermont Genetics Network held there on Aug. 17.

But they highlight the range of research that the network has enabled over the last nine years. And with $16.1 million of new funding awarded from the National Institutes of Health in July of 2010, the group has accelerated its work of advancing biological and medical discoveries in Vermont.

“VGN helps faculty and students across the whole state,” says the University of Vermont’s Judith Van Houten, University Distinguished Professor of Biology and director of the Vermont Genetics Network located at UVM.

“The VGN builds biomedical research capacity at our many partner institutions,” she says. These include: Castleton State College, Green Mountain College, Johnson State College, Lyndon State College, Middlebury College, Norwich University and Saint Michael's College.

Faculty at these schools and UVM apply for competitive grants from VGN that allow them to develop a record of research success. “Junior faculty are the highest priority,” explains Van Houten, and funding from VGN often allows these young scientists to spend about half their time on research.

In addition, the VGN runs microarray and proteomics facilities on the UVM campus that give researchers from across the state access to advanced capabilities in analyzing DNA, RNA, and proteins. Often this work is combined with consulting in the design and analysis of molecular biology experiments — through the VGN’s staff experts in bioinformatics.

The result, Van Houten says, is that Vermont faculty have access to world-class research tools and techniques that might otherwise be out of reach at schools that have traditionally focused on undergraduate teaching.

“This approach really supports biomedical workforce development in Vermont,” Van Houten says, “because it allows talented faculty in the colleges around the state to succeed with cutting-edge research. They then inspire their students — because they’re active researchers — to go on in biomedical careers, technical careers, or to medical schools.”

“We’ve had many faculty go on to get their own funding and then they don’t need funding any longer through VGN — that’s the goal,” Van Houten says. “The goal is to provide the capacity to make them competitive for national funding.”

Funded through the NIH’s National Center for Research Resources, the 2010 renewal of the Vermont Genetics Network relied on key support from US Senator Patrick Leahy. The $16.1 million represents the largest single-investigator grant — awarded to Judith Van Houten as the principal investigator overseeing the VGN — in UVM’s history.

“The funding is especially significant given the decrease in federal NIH funding levels on a national scale,” Van Houten said,  “and as confirmation of the excellent scientific research contributions being conducted in Vermont.”

As the posters and presentations at the VGN’s annual retreat made clear: this investment is helping to unlock diverse questions in genetics — from the development of humor in infants (as studied by Gina Mireault a psychologist at Johnson State College) to insights into schizophrenia through rat studies (as developed by Mark Stefani, a professor at Middlebury College) — while building up the state’s next generation of scientists and doctors.

“UVM is the lead institution in the VGN,” Van Houten says, “but we’re truly a statewide network working on globally relevant problems.”