More Than $13 Million Awarded to University Researchers

Eight $1 million-plus federal grants have been awarded in the past month.

September 25, 2013

Generic Science

In the past month, more than $13 million from federal agencies has been awarded to George Washington University faculty members to fund eight research projects within the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the School of Public Health and Health Services, the Elliott School of International Affairs and the Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

The influx of eight $1 million-plus grants in one month is momentous. Leo Chalupa, vice president for research at GW, said he has not seen anything like it during the four years he has held his position at the university.

The awards are especially significant, considering that federal funding for academic research continues to dwindle. The National Institutes of Health’s budget, for example, shrank by 5.5 percent this year. The agency expects that it will fund 650 fewer grants than it did the previous year.

Dr. Chalupa said the efforts of President Steven Knapp to expand research are bearing fruit. And what the grants truly highlight, Dr. Chalupa said, is the university’s outstanding faculty and deans who have made research a priority.

 “I think what it really shows, more than anything else, is the fact that we have faculty who are able to be competitive in a very, very challenging climate,” Dr. Chalupa said. “At a time when almost nine out of 10 applications get turned down, it is really remarkable.”

Dr. Chalupa said he remains “cautiously” optimistic — but optimistic nonetheless — that the inpouring of grant money is a trend that will continue in the coming months and years.

Research at GW has already had a direct impact on the community, and that will only continue.

“All of these things are either directly or indirectly beneficial to our city and region, but also to the nation. Because the kinds of things that work in Washington can be applied to other areas,” he said. “Whether the research is immediately beneficial, or if it is more long term, we’re doing it for the good of humanity.”

Kate M. Applebaum, an assistant professor in the SPHHS Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, was awarded $1.3 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund a four-year study that will investigate whether exposure to metalworking fluids used by autoworkers leads to renal disease and kidney cancer.

Millions of U.S. workers are exposed every year to suspected kidney-harming chemicals and possible cancer-causing agents, yet research in this area is limited,” Dr. Applebaum said.

The study will look at more than 46,000 autoworkers and will include more than 60 years of follow up to find cases of renal disease and kidney cancer, making it one of the largest studies of its kind.     

Matthew Colonnese, an assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology at SMHS, received a $1.9 million grant from the National Eye Institute to study developmental origins of wakefulness in the cerebral cortex. Dr. Colonnese was the first new faculty member recruited into the  GW Institute for Neuroscience.

His project will investigate how circuit properties and computational structures change in the cerebral cortex — the region of the brain responsible for cognition and perception —between the fetal and postnatal periods.

 “The fetal brain appears to be incapable of processing sensory information until just before birth – we are studying the mechanism of this critical shift,” Dr. Colonnese said.

This research can help to better understand the critical developmental checkpoints that determine if an infant will develop a healthy, functional brain.

Richard Katz, Bloedorn Professor of Cardiology at SMHS, was awarded $1.9 million by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute for a three-year project to study the combined use of mobile phones and community health for improved diabetes care.

Dr. Katz and his team will follow 200 diabetes patients with Medicaid insurance in the Washington, D.C. area for one year. One group will use the diabetes cell phone system, a second group will be assigned a community health worker and the third group will have both.

“This new chronic care model has the potential to modernize the traditional doctor-patient relationship, improve health and reduce medical costs,” Dr. Katz said.

Shaista E. Khilji and Barbara Miller received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of State to fund the project, “Development in Pakistan through Women’s Empowerment and a University Partnership for Capacity Building.”

Dr. Khilji is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and Dr. Miller is the director of the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Institute for Global and International Studies. Their project will support a three-year partnership with Lahore College Women’s University in Pakistan to support capacity-building at the university.

 “We are excited to play an important role in State Department’s initiative to promote social and cultural ties between people of Pakistan and the United States,” Dr. Khilji said.

The George Washington University Cancer Institute, housed within SMHS, received a $2.1 million grant to design a technical assistance plan, which will support comprehensive cancer control programs.

Comprehensive cancer control is a process through which communities and partner organizations pool resources to reduce the burden of cancer.

With the grant, the Cancer Institute will expand its online academy, develop training and resource guides, connect cancer control practitioners with experts and create easier ways to align local initiatives with national health priority indicators.

"Working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we will prioritize training needs and support implementation of proven strategies to reduce the burden of cancer in this country," said Mandi Pratt-Chapman, associate director of the institute.

Dominic Raj, director of the division of nephrology and a professor of medicine at SMHS, was awarded two multi-million dollar grants from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Raj will examine the role of gut microbiome on inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

For patients with chronic kidney disease, traditional medications to treat cardiovascular issues have often been unsuccessful. It is believed that many of these medications do not work because of underlying chronic inflammation in these patients.

Dr. Raj’s previous research showed that the cause of inflammation may be due to the release of endotoxin from bacteria. Dr. Raj believes that if he is able to modulate the gut microbiome to reduce the level of endotoxin, this will in turn reduce inflammation.

“This research is focused on finding a safe and effective treatment that reduces inflammation and prolongs survival of these patients,” Dr. Raj said.

For his first project, “Anti-inflammatory Therapy in Diabetic CKD,” Dr. Raj will work with the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Washington University to examine the effect of two anti-inflammatory therapies on slowing progression of atherosclerosis and protein-energy wasting in hemodialysis patients.

For his second project, “Gut Microbiota and Atherosclerosis in ESRD,” Dr. Raj will collaborate with the Cleveland Clinic, the University of California San Diego, the University of Miami and the University of Utah. He will examine the effect of two novel anti-inflammatory therapies in patients with CKD.

Patricia (Polly) Pittman, an associate professor of health policy at SPHHS, was awarded a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration to establish a Health Workforce Research Center.

The center will conduct research that focuses on the novel and flexible use of workers to improve health care delivery and efficiency, as the Affordable Care Act will bring up new questions about the ability of the health care workforce to meet the demands of the future.

“The center’s research will look at how to ease the shortage of health care professionals that could be exacerbated under health reform,” Dr. Pittman said. “But the center will also investigate other pressing issues that are emerging now in the wake of ACA implementation.”