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UVA, Virginia Tech Carilion partner to fund cross-university neuroscience research

December 11, 2016

The University of Virginia-Virginia Tech Carilion Neuroscience Research Collaboration capitalized on the enormous talent in brain research in the Commonwealth by encouraging cross-institutional research projects.

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The University of Virginia-Virginia Tech Carilion Neuroscience Research Collaboration capitalized on the enormous talent in brain research in the Commonwealth by encouraging cross-institutional research projects.

The University of Virginia-Virginia Tech Carilion Neuroscience Research Collaboration today announced more than a half-million dollars in grant funding will be awarded to nine research teams to tackle pressing problems in brain development and function in health and disease.

Investigators received the awards through a competitive review process and were notified this week by Michael J. Friedlander, vice president for health sciences and technology and professor at Virginia Tech, where he is also the executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the senior dean for research at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; and Margaret Shupnik, senior associate dean for research and a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, where she is also the Gerald D. Aurbach Professor of Endocrinology.

 “We are planting seeds that will bring additional research funding to the commonwealth from government agencies, private organizations, industry, and foundations,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “We continue to pursue partnerships with people and organizations who want to join us in solving some of the most pressing problems in health care.”

The leadership of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Carilion Clinic, Virginia Tech, and the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute provided financing for the program and issued an open call for proposals with a submission deadline of Oct. 10 through the University of Virginia – Virginia Tech Carilion Neuroscience Research Collaboration.

In all, $550,000 will be awarded to nine projects with each receiving between $50,000 and $70,000.

“We are taking full advantage of the combined talent of our faculty and encouraging lasting brain research collaborations between the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech Carilion,” Friedlander said. “The pilot funding will serve as a catalyst to form new teams to tackle important questions, perform transformative work, obtain new extramural research funding in neuroscience for each of the partner institutions, and to develop new applications.”

Organizers believe that the dialogues and the new collaborations stimulated by the program ultimately will generate significant, meaningful knowledge to benefit society, Shupnik said.

“The proposals speak to the scientific strength at our institutions and the synergies that these collaborations will create: studies of the causes of and means of diagnosing neurological diseases; new methods for understanding brain development, normal function, and dysfunction; models of neural circuitry; and potential interventions to restore function to the diseased nervous system,” Shupnik said. 

Carilion Clinic President and CEO Nancy Howell Agee said, “Research leads to better health care outcomes and better lives for our patients.”   

“These projects will provide a strong foundation for future research collaborations and funding opportunities, with the ultimate goal of benefiting our patients,” Agee added.

Funded grants address major questions and health challenges, including:

  • Herpes virus infections in the brain;
  • New strategies for treating Rett syndrome in children;
  • The development of the blood supply to the brain;
  • The mechanical forces of injuries leading to concussions;
  • The use of ultrasound to modulate critical chemical neurotransmitters in the human brain to affect behavior;
  • Development of new therapeutics for multiple sclerosis;
  • The role of breast cancer genes in brain function and development;
  • New combined therapeutic strategies for treating malignant brain tumors;
  • The relationship between seizures and microcephaly;

The University of Virginia – Virginia Tech Carilion Neuroscience Research Collaboration has been several years in the making, Friedlander said.

“From the beginning it was clear that there was enormous talent in brain research in the commonwealth with distinct areas of excellence but little in the way of cross-institutional collaborations,” said Friedlander, who arrived as the executive director at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in 2010 and began recruiting 15 leading brain research teams to Roanoke, Virginia.

Friedlander worked closely with leading neuroscientists at several universities across the state, who went on to develop ties and began planning a strategy to transform Virginia into “The Brain State” — a hub of scientific efforts and leading technological innovation to understand brain function and to develop new paradigms for diagnostics and treatments for brain-related disorders.

Meanwhile, the state’s political leadership expressed support for collaborative efforts between the state’s universities, which resulted in a statewide Virginia Neuroscience Initiative, coordinated by the Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corp.

In addition, teams of neuroscientists at various universities and health systems in Virginia identified opportunities to partner for major breakthroughs and new funding strategies.

The University of Virginia School of Medicine, Virginia Tech, and Carilion Clinic neuroscience teams hosted each other and shared their work at multiple meetings at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke and at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville.

“It was apparent from the outset that the enthusiasm for collaborating and energy for developing new approaches to some of the most important problems in neuroscience between the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech Carilion neuroscientists were extremely high,” Friedlander said.

The teams decided they would begin a series of collaborations building on their complementary strengths and mutual interests, identifying focused topics for advanced inquiry.

After the competitive review process of 24 proposals involving more  than 50 investigators, nine proposals were selected for funding:

  • Co-principal investigators Andrea Bertke, an assistant professor of population health sciences with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine; and Anna Cliffe, an assistant professor of microbiology, immunology, and cancer biology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine: Chromatin Composition of Latent HSV-1 and HSV-2;
  • Co-principal investigators Sanchita Bhatnagar, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Virginia; Alexei Morozov, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences; Michael McConnell, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics; and Mark Beenhakker, an assistant professor of pharmacology, both of the University of Virginia: Pharmacological Reactivation of Inactive X-linked MECP2 for Rett Syndrome Therapeutics;
  • Co-principal investigators John Chappell, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences; Shayn Peirce-Cottler, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia: Computational and Experimental Modeling of Blood Vessel Growth and Vascular Pericyte Investment in the Developing Germinal Matrix;
  • Co-principal investigators Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences and director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science; Steven Rowson, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences; and Matthew Panzer, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia: Brain Strain Patterns Associated with Concussion Injury;
  • Co-principal investigators Jeff Elias, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Virginia School of Medicine; Read Montague, the Virginia Tech Carilion Vernon Mountcastle Research Professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and professor of physics at Virginia Tech; and Mark Witcher, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Carilion Clinic: Impact of Cognitive and Ultrasound Stimulated Serotonin and Dopamine Release in Human and Swine Striatum;
  • Co-principal investigators Alban Gaultier, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Virginia; Kevin Lynch, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Virginia; and Webster Santos, an associate professor of bioorganic and medicinal chemistry in the Virginia Tech College of Science: Sphingosine Kinase Inhibitors and Multiple Sclerosis;
  • Co-principal investigators Deborah Kelly, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech; and Mark Yeager, a professor of molecular physiology and biological physics, and of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine: Decoding the Role of BRCA1 in Brain Cells using High-Resolution Cryo-EM;
  • Co-principal investigators Samy Lamouille, a research assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute; and Benjamin Purow, a professor of neurology at the University of Virginia: Disruption of Cx43-mediated Regulation of Microtubules to Eradicate Glioma Stem Cells in Glioblastoma Treatment;
  • Co-principal investigators Konark Mukherjee, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Sciences;  and Howard Goodkin, a professor of neurology and pediatrics at the University of Virginia: Contribution of Early Epileptiform Activity to Secondary Microencephaly in CASK(+/-) Mice.

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