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National Institutes of Health grants fund 2 cancer labs, 3 core facilities

Monday, October 31, 2005

The renewal of the National Institutes of Health’s $11 million Center of Biomedical Research Excellence Grant is funding five new research labs on campus. Each lab, run by a junior faculty member, takes a different approach to cancer research.

The labs under the grant are united in researching the causes of cancer development – why normal cells become cancerous, said John Sedivy, director of the Center for Genomics and Proteomics and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry.

An earlier NIH grant funded several pilot projects, giving each $40,000 to $50,000 per year for five years, along with three core facilities. The earlier grant was unfocused, funding work in neuroscience, immunology, cancer and other areas of biology.

To meet NIH’s current requests, the new grant focuses on cancer, which Sedivy described Brown as having “good critical mass in” because of its proximity to hospitals.

With funding from the grant, faculty members are conducting research on regulatory mechanisms that may lead to cells becoming cancerous.

Assistant Professor Jeffrey Singer is studying proteins called cullins, which are located in the protein degradation pathway. Protein degradation pathways determine which proteins need to be removed. Singer is interested in how these proteins that degrade other proteins are regulated.

Cullins have been shown to be involved in many biological processes, including cell cycle control, hormonal regulation, development and neurological regulation. Singer’s project focuses on Cullin 3, which is involved in the degradation of cyclin E, an increased presence of which has been linked to the development of breast cancers.

Assistant Professor Arthur Salomon is researching signaling pathways in cells to find out what causes cells to malfunction and how medicine might interfere with that process. Salomon compares signaling pathways to highways within the body. He uses spectrometry to study changes in proteins in these pathways, recording these changes to find how they cause disease.

Salomon’s multi-disciplinary approach includes chemistry, biology, statistics and computer science. He has an unusually diverse lab that fits under a new approach to science, tackling scientific problems by looking at the big picture instead of a smaller, focused piece, he said.

In addition to the research projects, the grant is also funding three core facilities located at Brown’s property on 70 Ship Street in Providence’s Jewelry District. One of these is a new bioinformatics core facility that conducts database analysis. The grant supports a genomics core facility and a transgenic core facility that creates genetically altered mice, both of which were created under the previous NIH grant. The initial grant also funded a microscopy core facility that is now self-supporting.

The core facilities house equipment that is very expensive to purchase, allowing faculty, students and researchers at the hospitals to use these very precise machines on a fee-for-service basis for their own research. The microscopy core, for example, has seven microscopes in two locations that include light and electron microscopes. The microscopes are completely digital and allow researchers to look at high precision and detailed images – even of live material.

“You don’t look into microscopes anymore, you drive (the sample) through a workstation,” Sedivy said of the high-tech microscopes.

Sedivy noted the importance of strengthening support for junior faculty, saying that these assistant professors without tenure often have trouble gaining funding to establish labs, which are a vital part of their professorships. He says he is excited that the NIH directed that this grant be used in such a career development manner.

Each of the five junior faculty involved in the project is also assigned a senior faculty mentor. Salomon and Singer praised the mentoring component of the grant. Mentoring allows for “learning things that aren’t necessarily written down,” Singer said.

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