At a time when federal grants are becoming increasingly scarce, three Franklin & Marshall science professors have been awarded more than $500,000 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for disease-related research.
Associate Professors of Chemistry Scott Brewer and Ed Fenlon secured a $272,303 NIH grant for their work examining how water interacts with proteins and other molecules, while Assistant Professor of Biology Beckley Davis landed a $246,447 grant from the NIH for research into inflammatory diseases. In 2013, Assistant Professor of Biology David Roberts received a $278,490 grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) for his research on cellular interaction in relation to cancer, boosting the total NIH funding for the three studies to nearly $800,000. Brewer and Fenlon’s grant, also from NIGMS, is their second, following the $195,895 they received in 2010.
Each of the four professors’ grants is an Academic Research Enhancement Award that NIH reserves for faculty at institutions that receive less than $6 million per year from the NIH.
“The funding climate is pretty bleak these days, and I wouldn't be surprised if the success rate for applications to the NIH is below 10 percent,” said Professor of Biology Peter Fields, chair of F&M’s Biology Department. “It is quite an accomplishment for one individual, and even more so for two in the same department” to merit such support.
Since 2004, the NIH budget has dropped more than 20 percent. As a result, the number of grants—not including federal stimulus money distributed a few years ago—significantly declined while requests for funding have not, according to NIH.
“The competition is increasingly severe,” said Amy Cuhel-Schuckers, director of faculty grants in the Office of College Grants. “These awards are peer reviewed by standing panels of very successful researchers, and that reflects the quality of research being done at F&M.”
For three years, Davis has pursued a theory that mutations in a specific gene play a significant role in the cause of Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory bowel condition, and Blau Syndrome, an inflammatory disorder that affects the skin, joints and eyes. With his grant, he will spend the next three years trying to discover how mutations influence the protein NOD2.
Roberts started his cellular research in cancer biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center nearly a decade ago. He is examining how a breakdown in the way cells communicate with one another can turn regulated cells into unregulated cells, leading to diseases such as cancer.
With their renewed grant, Brewer and Fenlon’s research using infrared spectroscopy to study biomolecules—proteins linked to disease—could, among other advances, create additional tools that Davis and Roberts might apply in their work. It could potentially lead to better therapies and medicines for inflammatory diseases and cancer, the professors say.
The NIH grants also allow the four professors to involve several students in the research, and in many cases, co-author papers. Davis has had eight student researchers and Roberts 14, while Brewer and Fenlon have involved at least 16 students in their work.
“It’s an opportunity for them to create new knowledge,” Brewer said.