Recovery Act gives boost to Vanderbilt’s scientific and medical research

[Read about more NIH stimulus grants.]

Since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was signed into law in February, it has given a significant boost to scientific and medical research at Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The Recovery Act committed $787 billion in federal funds to help stimulate the national economy. From this, 2.5 percent was earmarked for support of scientific and medical research.

As of Sept. 30, Vanderbilt researchers had received 180 grants totaling more than $74 million in first-year funding. Of those, 165 grants were awarded by the National Institutes of Health, 14 were awarded by the National Science Foundation and one came from Health and Human Services. About one-third of these grants support new projects while two-thirds provide supplemental funding for existing grants. Most are supporting medically related projects in areas ranging from pharmacology to pediatrics to neuroscience and cancer biology, but a significant number of grants are going to projects in other fields including chemistry, physics, astronomy, biological sciences and computer science.

This represents 45 percent of the Recovery Act grants from NIH and NSF awarded to research universities, medical centers and companies in the state. In addition, Tennessee state universities have received $169 million in funding (as of Aug. 19) from the Department of Education’s State Fiscal Stabilization Fund for which private universities like Vanderbilt do not qualify.

Following are examples of the research projects that have received Recovery Act funding:

Simulating how black holes grow and mentoring minorities and women in astronomy careers

Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Kelly Holley-Bockelmann has received nearly $1.1 million from NSF to use computer simulation techniques to study how supermassive black holes, like the one that has been discovered lurking at the core of the Milky Way galaxy, merge and grow. Black holes are some of the most exotic objects in the universe. The prototypical black hole is a compact object left behind when a large star explodes: It is about the mass of a star but compressed down to the size of a city like Nashville. The supermassive black holes detected at the cores of many galaxies, on the other hand, have masses equaling millions to billions of stars. Holley-Bockelmann’s grant will also support the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program – a partnership with historically black Fisk University designed to encourage underrepresented minorities and women to pursue careers in physics and other sciences. Holley-Bockelmann, who is also an adjunct professor at Fisk, will hire two Bridge graduates to assist in her black hole studies. Her grant is also providing “time-release” for a Fisk instructor so he can finish up his doctoral degree. In addition, she is hiring an additional post-doctoral fellow to assist in her black hole studies and a graduate student to serve as a computational guru for the Bridge program. Holley-Bockelmann will also teach a “computational boot camp” for entering graduate students and supervise a program using rocketry to train Fisk students pursuing high school teacher certification which will be field tested in local schools.

Studies of the electrical side of the human heart

When the human heart stops beating (as it does in 250,000 to 450,000 deaths each year in the United States from sudden cardiac arrest), electrical rather than mechanical problems are frequently the cause. John Wikswo coordinates a 13-member research group that has received $566,000 from NIH to study the relationship between electrical and metabolic effects that take place when the heart’s rhythm becomes disturbed or abnormal. This work is the continuation of research the group has done for the last 11 years that would have been terminated due to the National Institutes of Health’s tight budget were it not for the stimulus funding. “We are seeking to understand and control the metabolic abnormalities that underlie many cardiac electrical problems,” said Wikswo, the Gordon A. Cain University Professor at Vanderbilt. “We expect that what we learn will allow us to better understand how to prevent and treat life-threatening cardiac rhythm disturbances.” The other principal investigators are Veniamin Sidorov and Franz Baudenbacher, assistant professors of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt, and Richard Gray, a biomedical engineer at the Food and Drug Administration.

A new instrument for analyzing protein structure and DNA damage

Vanderbilt University researchers have received $3.9 million from NSF to purchase a powerful analytical instrument that will greatly accelerate their studies of complex protein structures. The ultra–high field nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer is a much more powerful version of instruments that have been used for years to determine the three-dimensional structures of proteins and protein complexes. “This will enable a substantial advance in analyzing the structure, dynamics and function of large membrane and soluble proteins, multi-protein cellular machinery and DNA damaged by environmental toxins,” said Walter Chazin, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Structural Biology and one of several faculty members who will use the new instrument. “The impact will be felt broadly,” he added, “not only within the center, but also across the biomedical research community [at Vanderbilt]. A wide range of investigators are studying cancer, diabetes, heart ailments, and many other diseases.”

Integrating genetic data with public databases

Marylyn Ritchie, who directs the Computational Genomics Core at Vanderbilt Medical Center, will be able to accelerate her research and nearly double her lab staff thanks to $923,000 from NIH. The goal of the project is to develop a way to integrate genetic data with other types of knowledge and with public databases. Although the sequencing of the human genome has generated a mountain of data, it’s not easy to extract meaningful information from it — even with the help of a supercomputer. According to Ritchie, studying the genome is analogous to climbing a mountain. Having fast computers can provide the climber with strength, stamina and good tools. What’s required to reach the top, however, is a strategy: a good route up the mountain. “Supercomputers must be programmed to analyze data in ways that reveal the greatest amount of significant information. But it’s going to take time to find the best route up the mountain,” she said.

Unraveling neural circuitry involved in visual attention

Associate Professor of Psychology Anna Wang Roe has received $565,000 from NIH to support studies of the organization of an area of the brain involved in visual attention and to investigate how the brain encodes tactile information. These studies will add to understanding of the neural circuitries underlying tactile behavior and attention and will have clinical relevance for recovery of function from stroke and development of tactile prosthetics. Roe and her colleagues will employ a range of techniques, including optical imaging, voltage-sensitive dye imaging, functional MRI, single unit recording and anatomical tracing methods to address these questions.

Lighting up the synaptic gap

Sandra Rosenthal and her colleagues want to deck out the synaptic gap like a Christmas tree, tagging its various features with multi-colored fluorescent tags so they can study the basic dynamics of processes that play an essential role in brain functions including mood, sleep, appetite and aggression. The chemistry professor leads an interdisciplinary team that has received $387,000 in funding from NIH to develop a new generation of fluorescent nanocrystal tags and find ways to attach them to the cell machinery that manipulates neurotransmitters, the complex cocktail of more than 40 different compounds that the brain needs to operate. This machinery includes transporter proteins that shepherd neurotransmitters through cell membranes and cell surface receptors that bind to specific neurotransmitters at the surface of nerve cells and trigger a series of specific biochemical reactions inside the cell. Their ultimate goal is to create long-lived probes that they can use to track the movements of transporter and receptor proteins for extended periods, information that they argue should shed new light on the nature of neural processes such as depression, addiction and learning. The grant supports two graduate students, two research assistant professors and one undergraduate student.

Probing the origins of super-eruptions

Volcanic eruptions like Mount St. Helens are poster children of nature’s violent side. In recent years, however, geologists have recognized the existence of “super-eruptions” that are so destructive they make St. Helens seem like a pipsqueak. They have the potential to destroy civilizations and arguably are the most catastrophic of all natural processes on earth. Three Vanderbilt geologists – Calvin Miller, Guilherme Gualda and John Ayers – have received a $347,500 Recovery Act grant from NSF to study a super-eruption that buried much of southeastern California and northwestern Arizona about 18.5 million years ago. The researchers will be using a battery of scientific tests in an effort to identify the events that trigger these awesome natural eruptions. In normal volcanic eruptions, only a few cubic kilometers of molten magma blows up the stack, either because there was little magma stored beneath the surface or because the eruption was inefficient in emptying the chamber. The geologists think that the hundreds to thousands of cubic kilometers of magma expelled by super-eruptions, by contrast, may indicate that almost all of the eruptible magma in giant chambers is blown out. They are looking for evidence to test their hypothesis. They will also be reconstructing the conditions in the giant magma chamber in the period before the eruption by studying the size and distribution of crystals and bubbles and studying the chemical composition of crystals in the remnant ash and pumice. Bubbles of water trapped in the molten rock are what powers volcanic eruptions and the microscopic crystals act like tiny instruments that record and time-stamp the conditions of the magma surrounding them when they crystallize. The project will provide training for five graduate students and five undergraduates, a large proportion of which will be women and underrepresented minorities.

Media contact: David F. Salisbury, (615) 322-NEWS

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