UR lands more than $40 million in research funding

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Despite heightened competition for federal funds nationwide and possible cuts to funding in the future, the University of Rochester Medical Center’s research prowess continues to attract millions. In the last three weeks alone, UR has secured more than $40 million for research.

Last week, researcher Deborah Fowell’s lab received $12 million to explore strategies to better fight infections and overactive immune responses in diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. 

The five-year project led by Fowell, dean’s professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at URMC, received the award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. The new grant builds on a $9 million grant the team received in 2014.

The latest infusion of funds will enable scientists in immunology, vaccine biology, biomedical engineering and physics to investigate the workings of the immune system in real time using imaging technologies. The team will work at UR’s Multiphoton Core Facility, which provides cutting-edge imaging and image analysis capabilities to further biomedical and bio-optical research. 

“With the previous grant we made a lot of observations that led to potential pathways for manipulating the immune response,” Fowell says. “Now we have molecular targets to investigate to improve or suppress immune responses in the tissues we’re looking at.”

“When we take cells out of their natural environment and study them in a dish, we’re missing out on a lot of biology,” said David Topham, a study project leader and professor of microbiology and immunology at URMC. “Imaging and tracking live cells is an emerging theme in immunology and one that I think is going to move forward meaningful discoveries in the field.” 

The team aims to develop new tools and techniques to mark and guide immune system cells into tissues, explore movement of these cells through inflamed tissue, and understand how the immune system responds to the flue in airways, UR says. 

Immunologists worldwide will join the team on Nov. 2 for the group’s fifth Annual Immune Imaging Symposium.

Also in the national spotlight is UR’s Wilmot Cancer Institute. Late last month, the institute announced that its practice-changing research into cancer side-effects and symptom management received a $29 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, marking the largest single grant currently funded at URMC.

The Wilmot’s Cancer Control and Supportive Care research program has been selected as a hub for the National Community Oncology Research Program by NCI. The Wilmot team, with 26 members, is charged with designing and managing clinical studies to be carried out at oncology clinics at more than 1,000 NCORP affiliates.

The grant puts the Wilmot Cancer Control program at the forefront of tackling issues of concern to patients such as nausea, fatigue and chemo brain, among many others. Cancer control is defined as an approach to help people live better with cancer. 

“It’s always been our mantra to help good people through lousy times,” says Gary Morrow, co-principal investigator and dean’s professor in the Department of Surgery. “This new funding allows us to seamlessly continue our work while extending the mission to reach even more people on a national scale and throughout Rochester and the Upstate New York region.”

NCORP places the UR team at the epicenter of all scientific ideas in this growing and vital field of research, says co-principal investigator Karen Mustian. She is also a dean’s professor in the department of surgery.

“The clinical trials carried out through the NCORP program end up changing how oncology is practiced in terms of helping patients alleviate the side-effects and symptoms that often accompany cancer and treatment,” she says. “We’ll be working with doctors, patients, and advocates to decide: What are the most troublesome issues that people experience when they go through cancer care? And of those issues, where are we lacking in treatment and where are the greatest research needs?”

The grant runs for six years, ending in July 2025. UR will receive $5 million the first year and then $4.7 million or $4.8 million each year thereafter, officials say. In 2014, Wilmot received its first NCORP award for roughly $20 million.

Such grants have placed UR among universities to watch, when it comes to federal funding. Though the university did not make Genetic and Biotechnology News’ top 50 NIH-funded institutions of 2019, the publication called out UR as an institution “worth watching.” UR was among the group that ranked 55 through 51, a handful of well-known names such as Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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