April 29, 2008

Profs Granted $1 Million for Research

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The Hartwell Foundation — which provides funds for translational biomedical research aimed at helping children — recently issued three grants and a fellowship to Cornell researchers. These funds, totaling $1 million, make Cornell the first research university to receive three faculty grants simultaneously from the foundation.
The recipients of the faculty grants include Prof. John C. March, biological and environmental engineering; Prof. Charles E. Glatt, M.D., psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College; and Prof. Anjali M. Rajadhyaksha, neurology and neuroscience at WCMC. These faculty members will receive $100,000 each for three years. Dr. Gretchen J. McAuliffee, a postdoctoral researcher in biomedical engineering, will also receive $50,000 for two years towards her research as a Hartwell Fellow.
According to the University, President David Skorton — himself a heart disease specialist — stated that, “With these awards, the Hartwell Foundation has affirmed the potential of basic and clinical research to improve the health of children. We appreciate the foundation’s confidence in the biomedical research efforts of faculty members on our Ithaca and New York City campuses.”
The Hartwell Foundation website describes its goal as working to provide funding to individuals who attempt innovative and cutting-edge biomedical applied research. The research grants also attempt to provide funding for projects that have not yet qualified for traditional funding sources.
“It is an honor for The Hartwell Foundation to provide financial support to three outstanding researchers from Cornell. The competition for Hartwell Investigator awards among qualifying institutions this year was remarkable, making our final selection very difficult,” said Dr. Frederick A. Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation.
The researchers are also extremely appreciative of the funding.
“There is increasingly less money available from the federal government for funding grants and it’s typically pretty hard to get a grant when you’re a new investigator,” March said. “The Hartwell Foundation gives [funding to] new investigators who are willing to try something a little more risky.”
Dr. Glatt also agrees that it is much harder to find funding when investigating a novel idea, as opposed to well-established research topics.
“The funding that [The Hartwell Foundation] is going to provide is going to be very helpful in generating data … Then [we can] apply for other sources of funding once [the research] is no longer cutting edge. We will leverage funding from the Hartwell Foundation to get other funding for research,” Glatt said.
The recipients’ research topics include juvenile type-1 diabetes, emotional disorders due to genetic factors, Autism Spectrum Disorder and laser techniques to repair the heart.
March is currently researching juvenile type-1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease where the immune system does not allow the pancreas to produce insulin that is vital to the maintenance of blood sugar levels. Therefore, diabetics must approximate how much insulin they need at a given time and inject themselves with the hormone. March hopes to genetically engineer bacteria that will stimulate the epithelial cells that line the small intestine. These cells would then secrete appropriate amounts of insulin when triggered by the body’s glucose levels. This way, insulin overdose and the subsequent complications due to an over-approximation of the amount needed can be avoided. March is also using the grant to develop a gut tube reactor, a 3-dimensional cell culture model of the small intestine to test his research.
Glatt is researching the genetic influences on emotional regulation of behavior. Specifically, he is looking at the role of polymorphisms — a genetic difference — in the serotonin transmitter that is primarily involved in brain function and emotional regulation. Glatt hopes to find the relevance of this polymorphism to mood disorders that are common during adolescence.
Rajadhyaksha is studying the molecular and cellular basis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, a developmental brain disorder whose cause still remains unknown.
“Using cell lines from autistic patients, their unaffected siblings and their parents, my lab will examine how abnormalities in genes encoding [calcium ion] channels — critical for early brain development — alter normal brain development leading to the symptoms of ASD … Once we have a better understanding, counteracting such changes would provide therapeutic benefits,” Rajadhyaksha stated in an e-mail.
McAuliffee is working on laser surgical techniques in order to repair heart defects. She is working under Prof. Jonathan Butcher, Ph.D., biomedical engineering. McAuliffee preferred not to comment on her research.
According to The Hartwell Foundation website, invited universities submit research proposals from both the faculty and research staff in an open competition. Nominees then submit a formal proposal to the foundation and present their research. The Hartwell Foundation then selects ten candidates to receive the Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award. Not only do recipients receive the funding, but also video conferencing system to support communication efforts and to promote collaboration between researchers. The Hartwell Foundation also named Cornell one of the nation’s top 10 biomedical research universities.
“Cornell is a research institution with all kinds of departments … This really plays to many of our strengths and we’re very, very proud of winning these Hartwell grants,” said Friedlander.