University News

U. hauls in $12 million of stimulus grants

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rhode Island institutions will receive more than $22 million in federal stimulus funds to promote medical research beginning this month — and Brown is leading the charge.
The University has procured 52 of 91 federal grants distributed to the state by the National Institutes of Health, adding $12 million to the total amount of stimulus funds Brown has already received through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The awards, announced by the Rhode Island Congressional Delegation on Sept. 30, come on the heels of aggressive efforts by Brown to secure federal research grants since Congress passed the stimulus package in February.

In the past two years, the University has sought to increase its appeal to national foundations and the federal government, hiring a Washington-based political consulting firm and forging strategic partnerships with other research institutions.

“It’s quite exciting and speaks to the strengths of Brown that there are competitive rewards coming in,” said Professor of Medical Science Christine Biron, who conducts research on immune responses to viral infections. “It’s very difficult to get grant funding right now.”

“We think there is both a need and a desire for research in society and an opportunity for exciting federal funding,” Clyde Briant, vice president for research, told The Herald last month, before the recent Congressional announcement. At the time, he said he was optimistic that more funding was on the way, adding the University was “really at a stage where we’re building very strongly.”

Among the 42 professors who secured funding through the NIH’s most recent venture is Barry Connors, chair of the neuroscience department and the principal investigator behind several neurological projects. His ability to bring in funding, he said, is a testament to Brown’s immediate response to opportunities for additional stimulus funding, a sentiment shared by many professors interviewed this week.

“Brown was pretty good about giving us the support and administrative help to hit the ground running,” Connors said. “This stimulus funding was a boost for everyone.”
Connors said the stimulus funds earmarked for the NIH — which has seen competition for its limited number of grants rise since its own budget flatlined after 2003 — has allowed many Brown professors to apply for supplements to long-standing grants that were already in progress.

The two grants Connors secured last week were awarded to support undergraduates working in research over the summer and to supplement a long-standing grant to study neural synapses and inhibition. One of the most important reasons the NIH decided to award him the most recent round of stimulus money, Connors said, was so he could hire people in his lab.

Professor of Neuroscience John Donoghue, director of the Institute for Brain Science, and Associate Professor of Engineering Leigh Hochberg, who lead Brown’s BrainGate research, are also recipients of significant NIH grants.

The BrainGate system — a brain-implant technology developed at Brown in conjunction with the biotech company Cyberkinetics in 2003 — is focused on improving communication and mobility for patients with neurological diseases or injuries.

With nearly $1.4 million in stimulus funds spread out over five years — the first two supported by the NIH awards — Hochberg plans to use additional funding to develop a communication system to help people with locked-in syndrome, a condition in which a patient is mentally alert but unable to move or communicate due to complete paralysis.
He said Donoghue has plans to use the NIH grant — worth $500,000 per year for two years — to create an new system involving a robotic assistive device for people with paralysis.

“Everybody involved with the BrainGate research team at Brown and Massachusetts General Hospital is thrilled” about receiving the grants, Hochberg said.

The NIH grants will also support collaborative projects between Brown and other universities. Brown’s Superfund Research Program, led by Professor of Medical Science Kim Boekelheide, received stimulus funds to work with Boston University in a study of a neighborhood in the Boston area contaminated with hazardous waste. Researchers in the program will also study contamination in nail and hair clippings from newborns in collaboration with Dartmouth.

“We were very well positioned to apply for these grants,” Boekelheide said. “It’s something to be very proud of.”