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Stimulus money gives scientific research at local universities a boost

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 11, 2010 - The first anniversary of the $787 billion federal stimulus program, in mid-February, set off lots of arguments, pro and con, about its worth. But among officials at the area's major universities, there has been no debate about the value of the program. They all say the funding has made a big difference in starting up or continuing important research that benefits everyone.

Under the program, officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Missouri is ultimately expected to receive at least $3.3 billion. This is in addition to stimulus funds going directly to universities, including nearly $100 million so far to Washington University, more than $9 million to St. Louis University, and at least $2.9 million to the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

The money was welcome at Washington University not only as a boost to its cutting-edge medical research, but as a cushion to economic conditions that have led to budget cuts.

"It would be much worse," without stimulus funding, says Jennifer K. Lodge, associate dean for research at Washington University School of Medicine. "This money has allowed us to continue projects as well as start new projects."

An example is this week's announcement of a $14.3 million grant to expand the university's data center for genomics. The facility's sophisticated computer networks store massive amounts of data used to identify the genetic origins of cancer and other diseases. With the additional funding, the data center, at Duncan and Newstead avenues, will expand to nearly 32,000 square feet, about twice the size of the existing facility. Construction is expected to begin in the fall.

The research is part of a long-term project under which Washington University scientists will use next-generation DNA sequencing to generate genetic maps of mutations related to 20 types of cancer. Over time, Lodge says, the project is expected to lead to new ways to diagnose, treat or even prevent cancer.

"That's really exciting," Lodge says, because, among other things, it's an important shift away from the one-size-fits-all treatment. "We're entering an era where treatment can be tailored to each person. This project really ushers in the era of individualized medicine."

Another project involves diabetes research funded by a $500,000 grant. People with diabetes have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The university's research focuses on signals in the bloodstream, called biological markers or biomarkers, which appear before cardiovascular disease sets in.

"If you can identify what these are early on, you can predict disease based on these biomarkers," Lodge says. "We have a project to identify what those biomarkers are so that we can identify people earlier" for cardiovascular disease and for treatment.

"How grateful we are to have this opportunity to compete for these funds, which are really making a difference in speeding improvements in the delivery of health care," Lodge says.

Just as important, university officials add, is the employment component of the stimulus funding. They expect the fund to help create or retain more than 350 jobs, including 200 in construction, while speeding up the pace of genomics-based discoveries.

In addition, Lodge says the funding has helped the university hire at least 14 research scientists laid off by Pfizer. More of these scientists will be hired, she says, because the university wants to "keep the folks here in St. Louis and keep them employed."

Lodge says Washington University ranks sixth overall in stimulus grants from all sources to universities and is in the top five for stimulus funding from the National Institutes for Health.

St. Louis University also is hiring some laid off scientists from Pfizer, but no stimulus money will be used for that purpose, says Raymond C. Tait, vice provost for research. The scientists will be part of the university's Center for World Health and Medicine, which is expected to start up this summer. Meanwhile, he says, stimulus funding will underwrite many medical projects, including research into chronic pain and the long-term effects of stress.

"We're not looking at treating the stress but at the way the body's hormones respond to stress," he says. "There are all kinds of evidence that stress causes long-term health problems. Exactly how it causes health problems is not well understood."

This research is funded by a $974,000 grant from NIH and is a joint venture between SLU and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Scientists from both schools will seek to help people find better ways to manage chronic pain.

SLU officials say that one-third of Americans suffer from some type of chronic pain and the estimated cost of pain medication is $100 billion each year. Tait says neuropathic pain, or pain stemming from damage to the nervous system, is common to people coping with arthritis, cancer, diabetes and nerve injuries. Finding new ways to address this pain is needed, he says, because existing treatment isn't always effective and can have side effects.

Working to address this problem are Daniela Salvemini, an associate professor at SLU's School of Medicine; and William Neumann, assistant professor at SIU-E's School of Pharmacy. Salvemini is credited with the discovery of a key compound, called peroxynitrite, that is produced when inflammation occurs in the body. Overproduction of this molecule can cause chronic pain, she says.

"We hope we can find new therapies with fewer side effects," she says. "Currently, pain is often poorly managed. Our hope is to find better ways to eliminate human suffering."

Neumann says the molecules targeted for the team's research usually "are kept under tight wraps" by the body's defense systems. "But, if these systems become compromised, as in a state of chronic pain, it actually can make the problem worse. We'll be looking at creating a synthetic enzyme that will go in and destroy the peroxynitrite."

At the start of the year, SLU counted 43 jobs created or preserved because of stimulus money, but Tait says that the numbers might increase, and that the biggest employment impact probably will involve workers for construction projects.

"The federal government continues to put out requests for applications that they will fund with stimulus money," Tait says. "The fact is that they are not yet done in distributing the money, and that St. Louis University and Washington University will continue to see if we can apply for those kinds of dollars. There's definitely money in the pipeline, including several grants we're working on now, and we'll hopefully qualify for them."

Tait also says St. Louis University's share of stimulus money to date is about the proportional amount of federal research dollars the university normally gets in relation to the amount that goes to Washington University. Overall, Tait says Washington University gets about $600 million and St. Louis University about $60 million.

"The competition for these dollars is pretty substantial," Tait says. "There's no question that this money offers some benefits on the jobs front, but not enough, of course, to cure the employment problem in the region."

Officials say UMSL has received at least $2.9 million in stimulus money for nearly a dozen research projects, including a $575,000 National Science Foundation grant to Bethany Zolman, an assistant professor of biology. Such grants, a university spokesperson said, are highly competitive. They are reserved for teacher-scholars who are junior faculty members capable of outstanding research.

Zolman is studying hormones that control plant growth and development, not unlike the role hormones play in animals. In technical terms, she is looking at a storage molecule known by the scientific name ndole-3-butyric acid, or IBA, which influences how roots develop. Her goal is to understand how IBA is converted into the active form of the hormone and the role that this conversion plays in plants. The knowledge could help scientists figure out how to manipulate the process and increase plant rooting and improve plant growth, according to school officials.

Zolman says she's excited about receiving the award because, "I know there is a lot of competition for this funding."

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by The Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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