Stimulating Discovery

Coordinated efforts across the University and a $90 million slice of recovery funding will feed jobs, research, and other vital resources into the South Florida economy for the next two years.

Stimulating DiscoveryWorking long hours in his University of Miami lab, biomedical engineer Weiyong Gu knows he’s in a race against time. The bioreactor he’s building could help pave the way for advanced human tissue engineering techniques that would benefit diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and transplant patients, among others.

Gu is one of the beneficiaries of the sizable awards granted through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which has pumped $10.4 billion into the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with $8.2 billion earmarked for scientific research priorities.

Several slices of Uncle Sam’s federal stimulus pie have been served up to UM investigators, who are using the research grants to investigate cures for some of the world’s greatest ills, solve urgent problems, and spur the economy.

Grants range from $65,102 to help the UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities retain an employee responsible for helping adolescents with autism transition to adulthood, to $15 million toward the construction of the Rosenstiel School’s new seawater laboratory, where scientists and engineers will study the impact of hurricanes and other extreme weather events on natural and manmade environments.

By press time, UM investigators had received 114 stimulus grants totaling $90 million. Those awards are supporting approximately 300 University employees and have created or retained some 110 jobs. With ARRA funding applications still pouring in, the University’s Office of Research is busier than ever, reporting a huge spike in its proposal volume since Congress passed the $787 billion stimulus package. The office also has done a yeoman’s job of alerting investigators to emerging ARRA funding opportunities, conducting workshops for faculty on all three campuses about new and existing possibilities.

To manage ARRA-related endeavors, UM created a Stimulus Working Group, which gleans funding opportunities the moment they are released. “That’s definitely been one of the keys to the success we’ve had,” says Rudy Fernandez, vice president for Government Affairs. “The working group represents the University’s diverse activities and expertise, allowing us to vet every granting opportunity with an eye toward our strengths.”

Richard Bookman and Jennifer McCafferty-Cepero

Vice Provost for Research Richard Bookman and Jennifer McCafferty-Cepero, assistant dean for research at the Miller School

Stimulus funding is driving more than research, Fernandez adds. It’s cementing the University’s future through planned construction projects such as the new seawater lab at the Rosenstiel School and a recently announced neuroscience and health annex. The latter, funded by a $14.8 million NIH grant, will be a 37,700-square-foot addition to UM’s Cox Science Center for interdisciplinary research by College of Arts and Sciences and Miller School of Medicine scientists.

And an extra $575,000 from the Department of Education aided UM’s Federal Work Study program.

Still, research projects—many addressing social, medical, and environmental problems—account for the lion’s share of stimulus money awarded to UM. One such initiative involves HIV prevention. Lisa Metsch, a Miller School professor of epidemiology and public health, has partnered with the San Francisco Department of Health on a $12.3 million trial examining the effectiveness of HIV prevention counseling. They’ll follow some 5,000 patients at nine sexually transmitted disease clinics in six states and Washington, D.C., and also study the cost-effectiveness of counseling, Metsch notes.

At the College of Engineering, Gu and colleague Charles Huang are developing a first-of-its-kind bioreactor that could allow the growth, biochemical properties, and other physical traits of engineered tissue to be monitored in ways that were previously impossible.

The researchers’ $735,000 ARRA grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering gives them just two years to create a prototype. “Imagine using engineered tissue to replace diseased or damaged organs,” Gu says. “That’s the potential of this work.”

With a $2.6 million NIH stimulus grant, Akira Chiba hopes to do for proteomics, the study of proteins, what the mapping of the human genome did for genomics. He has a powerful new tool in his arsenal to make it happen: the photon-based microscope that his colleague Daichi Kamiyama helped design while working as a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before joining Chiba at UM. It will allow the biologists to study how individual proteins interact in their natural environment as undissected, intact cells and organisms. The microscope, which takes 3-D images of living tissue at least 50 times faster than ever before possible, demonstrates “that the binding of two interacting proteins can be visualized directly within an intact brain of a fruit fly—a remarkable achievement that we now propose to repeat for 10,000 different protein pairs in the first 24 months of our project,” says Chiba. “We have direct access to the protein network, and that should help improve medical strategies.”

The U.S. government has given $2 million to Peter Swart, professor and chair of the Division of Marine Geology and Geophysics, and his colleagues Tim Dixon, Falk Amelung, Guoqing Lin, and Dan Riemer to learn more about carbon sequestration, or trapping harmful gases where they can’t poison the air and contribute to global warming. They are examining “exactly what happens to carbon dioxide when it gets pumped in the ground,” Swart says. In that technique, carbon dioxide is captured from large point sources such as fossil fuel power plants, converted to a liquid, and stored underground, out of the atmosphere. The $300,000 ARRA portion of the award will enable Swart to train UM doctoral students to determine whether carbon dioxide is leaking from the ground at predetermined government sites around the country where it has been buried.

While significant, the University’s chunk of stimulus money is not pie in the sky. It runs out in two years, which puts UM researchers under tight deadlines designed to advance their respective research projects and help jumpstart the economy. Richard Bookman, vice provost for research and executive dean for research and research training at the Miller School, is confident that will happen. Recovery funding, he says, is sure to “bolster our faculty and staff’s continuing commitment to pursue new knowledge and innovative approaches to understanding the most pressing problems of our generation while providing some local economic relief.”

Robert C. Jones Jr. is an editor at the University of Miami.