NIH program helps KU Medical Center recruit and equip research scientists

January 24, 2013

By David Martin

Richard Hastings, director of the Flow Cytometry Core Laboratory

What does Nancy Kassebaum Baker, the former U.S. Senator from Kansas, have to do with laser technology that's housed on the third floor of a University of Kansas Medical Center research building? More than you might think.

In 1993, Kassebaum co-sponsored the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act. Among other things, the law established a program designed to foster biomedical research in states, like Kansas, with historically low success rates for obtaining NIH grants.

The Institutional Development Award program, as it's called, began to fund research institutions in the eligible states in an effort to help them start new programs, improve their laboratories and recruit more scientists. But the awards rarely exceeded $250,000, and the program did not make much of an impact.

Then, in 2000, the U.S. Congress authorized the NIH to make more substantial grants to states in the network. The money did not flow haphazardly. The NIH asked research institutions to submit proposals for developing or expanding their research capabilities around a particular theme. The NIH made 18 awards, worth approximately $2 million each, in the program's first year.

The research centers are known as Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence — or COBRE, for short. Each one is led by a scientist with an expertise central to the research focus. Microbiologist Joe Lutkenhaus, Ph.D., is the principal investigator of a COBRE at KU Medical Center that was first funded in 2001. The center formed around the idea of identifying new approaches for controlling microbial pathogens, such as HIV and hepatitis B.

Lutkenhaus, University Distinguished Professor of microbiology, molecular genetics and immunology, says the COBRE award was crucial for recruiting and developing the faculty members who are now his colleagues. "Almost everybody who's in the microbiology department was brought in with the help of this COBRE grant," says Lutkenhaus, a winner of the 2012 Horwitz Prize for his research into bacterial cell division.

COBRE grants last five years and are eligible to be renewed twice. To be renewed, research centers are expected to show progress in achieving their goals. The junior investigators associated with the project, for instance, should begin to compete successfully for research grants outside the COBRE.

Lutkenhaus was able to demonstrate that faculty members attached to his research center had obtained NIH grants totaling more than $40 million over the life of the program. Last fall, he was notified that the COBRE had received its "Phase III" funding.

A COBRE focused on molecular regulation of cell development and differentiation, led by Dale Abrahamson, Ph.D, University Distinguished Professor and chair of anatomy and cell biology, was also renewed last year. A COBRE built around the role of nuclear receptors in liver health disease, led by Hartmut Jaeschke, Ph.D., professor and chair of pharmacology, toxicology and therapeutics, is in its sixth year. The liver COBRE counts eight faculty members who "graduated" by obtaining research project grants from the NIH. 

Michael Parmely, Ph.D., professor and interim chair of microbiology, molecular genetics and immunology, says the recent COBRE award renewals are "really big news for the research community, because these NIH grants provide so much support for recruiting and mentoring new faculty members and sustaining some of our most essential research core facilities."

The impact of the grants can be felt beyond campus. Parmely notes that by contributing to the medical center's research infrastructure, the COBRE awards "save Kansas taxpayers a bundle."

Software and hardware

Within each COBRE, three to five junior investigators supervise research projects that stand alone but share a common theme. In addition to being paired with mentors, the early-career scientists receive other support designed to help them succeed. The junior investigators attached to the microbiology COBRE, for instance, are taking writing workshops taught by Martha Montello, Ph.D., associate professor of history and philosophy of medicine.

If editing tips are an example of the software behind the COBRE, the hardware is the sophisticated instrumentation in the Flow Cytometry Core Laboratory in the Hemenway Life Sciences Innovation Center.

Machines in the lab use lasers to gather information about cells' physical and chemical characteristics. The way the light bounces off the cells speaks to their size, granularity and viability. Fluorescent dyes added to the cells indicate if they are proliferating or dying. One analyzer can look at 10,000 cells per second.

The Hall Family Foundation donated two machines in the flow cytometry lab. The Lutkenhaus-led COBRE helps pay for the staff and supplies needed to keep the equipment running. The service contracts for the two instruments cost $50,000 a year.

Thomas Yankee, Pharm.D., Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology, molecular genetics and immunology, is the scientific director of the flow cytometry lab and also its heaviest user. The technology, he says, is crucial for his work. Yankee, an immunologist, studies the growth signals of T-cells, the understanding of which may lead to better treatments for patients who receive bone marrow transplants.

"Without these instruments, I wouldn't be here," he says.

Before arriving at KU, Yankee was on the faculty at the University of Washington, one of the top medical schools in terms of NIH funding. The fact that he would eventually choose to conduct his research in Kansas is one of the legacies of the bill that former Sen. Kassebaum co-sponsored 20 years ago.

Phase III of Novel Approaches for Control of Microbial Pathogens is made possible by Grant Number P30 GM103326 from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Phase II of The Role of Nuclear Receptors in Liver Health and Disease is funded by P20 RR021940 from the National Center for Research Resources. Phase II of Molecular Regulation of Cell Development and Differentiation is funded by P20 GM104936 from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Last modified: Feb 19, 2013