By Erinn Barcomb-Peterson
Through research that impacts health conditions from deafness to cystic fibrosis, future leaders in the biosciences are getting their footing at a multidisciplinary research center at Kansas State University.
Funded by a five-year, $11 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, K-State's Center of Biomedical Research Excellence provides resources to junior basic researchers and clinician-scientists at K-State and across Kansas. The center includes six teams of junior faculty members and mentors, all of whom come from the College of Veterinary Medicine and collaborating departments at K-State, as well as the Kansas University Medical Center. Since its founding in 2002, the center has encompassed the disciplines of biochemistry, human nutrition, entomology, biology and the three departments in the College of Veterinary Medicine -- anatomy and physiology, diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, and clinical sciences.
Daniel Marcus, university distinguished professor of anatomy and physiology and center's director, said the center is an ideal place for junior basic researchers and clinician-scientists to get their research on an increasingly solid footing.
"There are no fees charged to our faculty for the use of research facilities supported by the center, which makes it easier for someone trying something new," Marcus said "It's especially important with projects and technology that are new for an investigator."
The center's goal is for research developed here to help junior basic researchers and clinician-scientists get their own funding from the National Institutes of Health or other major outside sources. The center offers researchers a structured program of interdisciplinary interactions in videoconference seminars and intensive individual guidance. During the last four years, participants' work at the center has yielded 43 publications and 189 presentations and abstracts.
"The success rate is striking," Marcus said. "Millions of dollars are being awarded or sought using findings obtained from our core facilities."
Those core facilities include a confocal microscope facility, a molecular biology support facility and an epithelial electrophysiology facility. All of the center's research focuses on epithelial function in health and disease. Epithelia are the layers of cells in the body that form barriers between compartments and are thus important components of most organs of the body. They include the cell linings of the lungs, stomach, skin, kidneys, colon and reproductive tracts, as well as all glands. Epithelial cells are central to a broad scope of human health concerns, Marcus said. For instance, cystic fibrosis, colon cancer and most genetic deafness are related to the function of epithelial cells.
"The importance of studying epithelial fluid regulation at the molecular level is really critical to human and animal health," Marcus said.
Research projects at the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence include:
* Mitigate the side effects of a common type of prescription drug. James D. Lillich, associate professor of clinical sciences, is increasing the understanding of the cellular mechanisms underlying intestinal damage caused by a class of commonly prescribed drugs -- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. "This work is on track to provide a rational drug regimen in which anti-inflammatory treatments can be provided to patients without the debilitating side effects," Marcus said.
* Gain a better understanding of cancer. Annelise Nguyen, assistant professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, studies the cellular basis of the toxic actions of some environmental pollutants. In particular, she is studying the ways that these toxins change the normal connections between cells via "gap junctions" that occur in reproductive epithelia and the impact of altered junctions on the initiation and support of cancerous growth. "These studies will have ramifications for our understanding of both toxicologic effects and basic mechanisms in cancer," Marcus said.
* Alleviate the transmission of malaria. Research by Yoonseong Park, assistant professor of entomology, is focusing on determining how an ion transport peptide in the African malaria mosquito, Anopheles Gambiae, controls excretory epithelial cells in the mosquito. Once the mechanism is known, it will allow scientists to develop environmentally benign insecticides that will help control the mosquito and thus reduce the transmission of diseases carried by the mosquito.
* Understand an injury that occurs during heart attacks and strokes. Sherry Fleming, assistant professor of biology, is studying the mechanisms of damage to intestinal epithelium when there is a temporary interruption of blood flow to the intestine. She is finding that certain gene products, called "toll-like receptors," are expressed in these cells and are involved in the pathologic response to the restoration of blood flow. "Her studies at the center will provide critical data to improve our understanding of this injury, which occurs not only in the intestine, but also during heart attacks and strokes," Marcus said.
* Find a natural way to fight infections in the urinary tract and other tissue. Tonatiuh Melgarejo, assistant professor of human nutrition, is studying urinary tract infections and novel methods of treatment with naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides. Comparative studies on antimicrobial peptides from a variety of animals ranging from hyenas to Komodo dragons are providing information on the most potent potential treatments that nature has to offer. "Biochemical analyses of the effective peptides will provide further insight into the cellular mechanisms involved in this novel infection-fighting mechanism," Marcus said.
* Offer better treatment for parathyroid-related disorders. Min Pi, research assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, is focusing research on determining the fundamental signal pathways in cells of the parathyroid that control our body' calcium levels. This complex process uses a calcium-sensing receptor in the surface membrane of these cells but the subsequent signal pathways are not understood. Research will unravel the control schemes in the parathyroid and provide a rational basis for treating related disorders.
The Center of Biomedical Research Excellence is in the process of reapplying for funding to continue to serve emerging leaders in the biosciences. The center also has begun to collaborate with a veterinary college in Berlin that does research on epithelia. An inaugural symposium took place in January, and Marcus said the institutions are planning further collaboration.
More information about K-State's Center of Biomedical Research Excellence is available at http://www.vet.k-state.edu/depts/ap/COBRE/