October 21, 2010

Three Professors Receive $1.5 Million ‘Innovator’ Award for Research

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Three Cornell faculty members –– Prof. Maria Felippe, equine health and large animal medicine; Prof. Ruth E. Ley, microbiology; and Prof. John C. March, biological and environmental engineering –– were awarded the competitive National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Awards for 2010, receiving $1.5 million each to support their research.

The NIH awards promising new researchers a maximum of $1.5 million over five years to further research in the fields of biomedicine and behavior. According to the NIH, successful applicants must be “unusually creative early stage investigators with highly innovative research ideas at an early stage of their career.” Though Ley estimates 2,000 people applied for the award, just 52 people were recognized this year.

Felippe, an associate professor of veterinary medicine, will use the award to continue her study of common variable immunodeficiency –– a disorder that makes people more susceptible to bacterial infection. By using the horse as a model organism, she hopes to better classify the causes of the disorder in humans. Though CVID has traditionally been viewed as a genetic deficiency, Felippe’s research proposes that the disorder is epigenetic, which increases an organism’s susceptibility to bacterial infections by altering its normal gene expression.

It is the first time a veterinary medicine researcher has won the NIH award, Felippe said.

“In the first year, our primary goal is to purchase necessary equipment for the lab, pay for data that we can obtain from Cornell’s Life Sciences Initiative and pay salaries of technicians and researchers,” Felippe said. “Maintaining personnel is the hardest part of keeping continuity in a study; the NIH grant helps us move in this direction.”

“Without this support, we could have been at risk of losing personnel,” Felippe added. “We now have the resources to bring us to what may be involved in this disease.”

Ley said she will also use the majority of the grant to support her team, consisting of a post-doc researcher, a research technician and a graduate student, all in the study of metabolic syndrome. Because metabolic syndrome, a disorder that is characterized by high blood pressure and excess fat, is linked to imbalances in gut “microbes,” Ley hopes to explore the effect of manipulating the “microbes’” role in the development of metabolic syndrome in mice.

Like Felippe, Ley said she hopes to ultimately apply her research on mice to humans.

“By the end of five years, we’ll have a good understanding of what the adaptive immune system is doing in the gut –– how it can shape the composition of gut microbes –– and hopefully, we’ll know if we can use vaccinations as a way to reshape microbes to be more health-promoting,” Ley said.

March will use the grant to study the effect of manipulating gut bacteria on Type I diabetes. His research goals are twofold. First, March hopes “to figure out how the commensal bacteria in the case of diabetes are changing the intestinal cells that line your gut;” second, he would like to “develop an in-vitro model of the intestine so [he] can study the interactions between epithelial cells and bacteria.”

Ultimately, this could lead to the development of a more inexpensive, simpler therapy for people living with diabetes — an oral treatment instead of insulin injections, which are currently used to manage the disease.

All three faculty members expressed great surprise at receiving the awards. With researchers nationwide from a variety of scientific disciplines applying for the grant and months of waiting for the results, Ley called the process “a little bit like the NIH essay-lottery contest.”

“I was delighted and quite humbled,” March said. “It’s really exciting.”

Maria Felippe said the feeling was “stimulating, getting this award, because it took us 10 years to get to this point and [this] confirms our initial idea was worth pursuing.”

Original Author: Akane Otani