NIH grants $16.8 million to UND biomedical scientist, continuing heavy investment in sound biomedical research

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School of Medicine & Health Sciences


GRAND FORKS, N.D.—The National Institutes of Health granted $16.8 million to Professor Donald Sens, Ph.D., in the Department of Pathology at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. The five-year grant renews the NIH's longstanding investment in the work by Sens that began in 2001.

His project, known as ND INBRE (pronounced "in-BRAY"), is the North Dakota IDeA (Institutional Development Award) Network of Biomedical Research Excellence. The IDeA program is the NIH's effort to expand North Dakota's research foundation by funding basic, clinical and translational research; faculty development; and infrastructure improvements.

The ND INBRE's research focus is on health and the environment. INBRE researchers investigate the effects on human health of environmental factors, particularly exposure to environmental compounds that may be carcinogenic. Sens and his colleagues study how chemicals in the environment negatively affect genes, resulting in the onset of cancer and other diseases.

"The goal of ND INBRE is to build biomedical research capacity by serving research universities, baccalaureate institutions, and tribal colleges within North Dakota," said Sens. "INBRE provides a broad range of benefits in biomedical research and science education."

Sens directs the statewide INBRE network, which is administered by the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences. With this latest grant, the total INBRE commitment to North Dakota will be approximately $45 million since 2001.

"In addition to our primary mission to help provide the health care workforce for North Dakota by educating outstanding physicians and other health sciences professionals, our other fundamental focus is on discovering new knowledge that can improve the lives and well-being of people in North Dakota and the region" said UND Vice President for Health Affairs and SMHS Dean Joshua Wynne, M.D., M.B.A., M.P.H. "It is through what is called translational research that investigators like Dr. Sens make discoveries that can directly benefit the patients that providers see in the clinic and hospital every day.”

The NIH continued its heavy investment in proven research at UND by also funding the work of Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Jonathan Geiger, Ph.D., and his colleague and collaborator Assistant Professor Xuesong Chen, M.D., Ph.D. For over 20 years, the Geiger laboratory has been studying neurological complications associated with HIV-1 infection, specifically HIV-1 associated neurocognitive disorders or HAND. The NIH's National Institute of Mental Health awarded Geiger and Chen a $1.6 million R01 five-year grant.

"It is a real achievement indeed to receive such an R01 grant from the NIH because only about 1 in 10 currently is being funded," said Malak Kotb, Ph.D., the chair of the Department of Basic Sciences at the UND SMHS.

"The study of HIV-1 associated neurocognitive disorders is particularly significant because about half of all people living with HIV-1/AIDS suffer from HAND with learning and memory issues similar to those experienced by people with Alzheimer's disease," Geiger said.

The NIH has long recognized the work of Geiger, who also serves as a reviewer of grant applications on the NeuroAIDS and Other End-Organ Diseases Study Section for the NIH's Center for Scientific Review. Geiger is the principal investigator for the UND Center of Biomedical Research Excellence or COBRE (pronounced "KOH-bree") for Neurodegenerative Disorder Research, which was originally funded in 2002. Funding for the Neurodegenerative Disorder Research COBRE has been renewed twice, most recently in 2012. By 2017, NIH grants to this COBRE will have provided investigators at UND with over $25 million.

The COBRE for Neurodegenerative Disorder Research seeks to answer questions about neurodegenerative diseases that loom large in health care, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, neurological complications associated with HIV-1 infection, multiple sclerosis, and seizure disorders. Causes of these diseases are complex, so the COBRE's cadre of investigators are drawn from all the medical research disciplines at the SMHS. Translating their discoveries into treatments—"from lab bench to bedside"—is a crucial part of their work.

In June, Associate Professor Min Wu, M.D., Ph.D., in the Department of Basic Sciences, received an NIH grant for $1.7 million to study a unique defense to combat superbug infections that are caused by bacteria that were once treatable for decades but are no longer controlled by antibiotics.

In September 2013, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Roxanne A. Vaughan, Ph.D., received a $10.5 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health for a new and separate COBRE at UND to research the epigenetics of development and disease.

A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH is the nation's medical research agency. The NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world. The mission of the NIH is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.