At a time when federal grants are becoming increasingly scarce, a group of Franklin & Marshall science professors have been awarded three grants totaling more than $500,000 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for disease-related research.
The $272,303 grant shared by Associate Professors of Chemistry Scott Brewer and Ed Fenlon for their work examining how water interacts with proteins and other molecules and the $246,447 grant to Assistant Professor of Biology Beckley Davis for research into inflammatory diseases are the latest NIH has bestowed on F&M faculty members.
In fall 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 these three studies to more than $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 are 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 and 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. According to NIH's report for fiscal year 2012-13, the success rate for NIGMS grant awards was 14.8 percent while at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, from which Davis received his grant, the rate was 6.6 percent.
"These awards are peer reviewed by standing panels of very successful researchers, and that reflects the quality of research being done at F&M," Cuhel-Schuckers said.
For three years, Davis has pursued a theory that mutations in a specific gene plays 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, Davis will spend the next three years trying to discover how mutations influence the protein NOD2 in such a way that it affects its normal process of binding to Adenosine triphosphate, a nucleotide known as ATP.
"What I'm interest in is what turns on these proteins and what turns them off," Davis said. "Is there a problem in the pathway? If there is a problem in the pathway, what's causing it?"
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 has continued the work since arriving at F&M in 2010. 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, potentially leading to better therapies and medicines for inflammatory diseases and cancer, respectively.
The pair is developing a series of techniques to study the water around proteins. The purpose, they said, is to understand how water interacts with biological molecules, which can then be used to make advances in therapeutic drugs.
"The knowledge we learn could be helpful to Dave [Roberts]," Brewer said.
Roberts agreed. "It could definitely be applicable to what I do," he said.
The NIH grants also allow the four professors to involve several students in the research.
"They are active participants," Davis said. His three current research students include seniors Suzanna Talento, a biology major, and Aaron Tocker, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, who have been with him for a year, and junior biology major Kate Trieschman, who is volunteering this semester.
For the last four years, Roberts has had 14 student researchers including current seniors Sean Cosgriff, biology, Bradford Greaves, neuroscience, and Ryan von Kleeck, biochemistry and molecular biology. Some have co-authored his papers.
Brewer and Fenlon have used at least 16 students, in their research, including senior chemistry major Elise Tookmanian, and junior biochemistry and molecular biology majors Daniel Levin, also majoring in chemistry, Nicole Maurici and Shawn Hines. All publications resulting from this project have had student co-authors.
"It's an opportunity for them to create new knowledge," Brewer said.