USF Health receives $1.3 million in Florida biomedical grants

Team science award focuses on nanotechnology to diagnose and treat cancers

Tampa, FL (June 20, 2007) —
Several researchers at USF Health will receive more than $1.3 million in funding through the Florida Department of Health’s 2007-08 James and Esther King Biomedical Research Program. The King Program supports biomedical and behavioral research for the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure of tobacco-related diseases, including cancer, heart disease and stroke.

This year the King program, selecting from 55 proposals, competitively awarded 23 research grants worth more than $8.3 million to Florida scientists across the state. The funding begins July 1. USF Health researchers received three of the King Program grants – including one of two team science project grants and two of seven bridge grants:

• Shyam Mohapatra, PhD, Division of Allergy and Immunology, Department of Internal Medicine, “Engineered Nanoparticles for Biomarker Detection and Targeted Drug Delivery,” $939,184, two-year team science project grant. Other team members include Subhra Mohapatra, PhD, Department of Interdisciplinary Oncology, the Moffitt Cancer Center; and Shekhar Bhansali PhD, College of Engineering, Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing Research Center. This grant requires a 25-percent match from USF, which will bump the amount to $1.2 million.

• Eric Bennett, PhD, Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology, “Role of Non-Peptide Domains in Sodium Channel Function,” $188,000, one-year bridge grant

• Alison Willing, PhD, Department of Neurosurgery, Center for Aging and Brain Repair, “Splenic Mechanisms of Cord Blood Induced Brain Repair,” $188,000, one-year bridge grant.

Team science grants, which support interdisciplinary group projects, are designed to make Florida institutions more competitive in applying for high-level grants offered by the National Institutes of Health. Bridge grants provide interim support for promising investigator-initiated projects that were highly rated in recent NIH peer-reviewed competitions, but not funded due to federal budgetary constraints.

“Our faculty have had unprecedented success this year in obtaining grants from this very important source of competitive funding in the State,” Abdul S. Rao, MD, MA, DPhil, senior associate vice president for USF Health and vice dean for research and graduate affairs at the College of Medicine. “This accomplishment underscores the fact that in light of NIH funding challenges, investigators have to seek alternative sources of extramural support to continue to grow their research capacity.”

The Power of Small: Finding new ways to detect and destroy cancer

Dr. Shyam Mohapatra will work with faculty members Dr. Subhra Mohapatra at Moffitt Cancer Center, and Dr. Shekhar Bhansali at the College of Engineering, on harnessing the power of nanotechnology to detect and treat lung and prostate cancers. Nanotechnology involves the study and synthesis of exceedingly tiny things (1 nano is one-millionth the size of a pinhead) – including particles so small that they can carry therapeutic genes or drugs into specific tumor cells.

“It’s really an interdisciplinary team technology project intended to advance our understanding of the fundamental biology of lung and prostate cancers and translate these findings from the laboratory to the clinic,” said Dr. Mohapatra, the Mabel & Ellsworth Simmons Professor of Allergy and Immunology. “The grant will help us develop the research infrastructure and preliminary data needed to attract federal nanomedicine grants down the road.”

Dr. Mohapatra directs basic science research for the Joy McCain Culverhouse Airway Diseases Center. His laboratory has already shown that nanoparticles made of chitosan, a naturally biodegradable substance found in shellfish, can safely and effectively deliver therapeutic genes into cells lining the lungs and reverse ongoing asthma in mice.

The Florida team grant will fund three areas of nanotechnology research, and expand training of undergraduate, medical and postdoctoral students in this new translational field.

The first project teams Dr. Bhansali of Engineering with Arun Kumar, PhD, and Prassana Jena, PhD, both from Internal Medicine. The researchers will develop “microfluidic” chips to detect and analyze proteins from lung and prostate cancer cells. These gold nanowire wafers — essentially miniscule diagnostic labs on chips the size of dimes – may one day allow a physician to deposit a drop of a patient’s urine, saliva, mucous or blood on the chip and detect cancer genes in a matter of minutes instead of days. Such nanotechnology could help oncologists begin treatment sooner, design individualized therapy, and even monitor how well that therapy is working, Dr. Mohapatra said.

The second project, conducted by Dr. Shyam Mohapatra and Wilson Xu, PhD, of Internal Medicine, will investigate chitosan nanoparticles modified to release anticancer genes or drugs into the diseased area of the lung as needed in response to a tumor-specific cellular trigger, while sparing healthy tissue. Mohapatra describes the approach as similar to that of a heat-guided missile designed to seek and destroy only its target on command. The intended result is safer, more effective treatment than conventional chemotherapy, which kills healthy cells as well as cancerous ones with its blanket-bombing approach.

In the third project, Moffitt’s Dr. Subhra Mohapatra will test the safety and effectiveness of nanoparticles in treating prostate cancer. The researcher aims to establish “proof of concept” for a prostate-specific targeting strategy, which will deliver a novel small molecular drug cocktail using chitosan-conjugated nanoparticles to prostate tumors in mice. Multifunctional nanoparticles provide the unique opportunity to combine two drugs that can be jointly targeted to the same cell for the maximal therapeutic effect, Dr. Shyam Mohapatra said. If successful, he said, the approach would aid significantly in the development of a new treatment for metastatic prostate cancer, particularly androgen-independent prostate cancers, for which no effective life-prolonging therapy is available.

Getting to the heart of cardiac arrhythmias

Cardiac arrhythmias, or heart rhythm disorders, are a leading cause of sudden death and the risk of these deadly rhythm disturbances increases in smokers suffering from heart failure. Eric Bennett, PhD, associate professor of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology, studies the regulation of heart rhythms and how they become irregular in diseased hearts. With the Florida bridge grant, Dr. Bennett and colleagues propose a new model for regulating the heart’s electrical system, which could lead to new therapies for preventing deadly cardiac arrhythmias.

Every beat of the heart is orchestrated by an elaborate synchronization of electrical signals across all cells in the heart. The work of ion channels is essential for coordinating electrical impulses and maintaining normal heart rhythms. These protein pores in the cell membrane selectively regulate ion flow into and out of the cell.

Sugars play a key role in cardiac ion channel function and may also change the electrical system that controls the heart’s ability to contract and pump blood. Dr. Bennett’s team will investigate how altering sugars attached to the ion channel protein may impact electrical impulses among chambers of the heart in neonatal and adult mice. If the electrical impulses are disrupted, the susceptibility to deadly heart rhythm disorders would likely increase.

Exploring the brain-spleen connection in stroke recovery

Alison Willing, PhD, associate professor of neurosurgery at the USF Health Center for Aging and Brain Repair, has demonstrated that intravenously administering human umbilical cord blood (HUCB) cells to rats following a stroke greatly reduces the brain’s inflammatory response and stroke size, and improves recovery. These studies also indicated that the spleen’s typical reaction to stroke – reduced size and increased inflammatory response – is inhibited following HUCB transplantation. Based on these early observations, Keith Pennypacker, PhD, associate professor of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology, has shown that the inflammatory response after stroke is a major component of the disease.

In the bridge grant study, Dr. Willing will work with Dr. Pennypacker and Paul Sanberg, DSc, PhD, professor and director of the Center for Aging and Brain Repair. They will test the hypothesis that HUCB’s ability to promote recovery in the brain is critically dependent upon inflammatory and anti-inflammatory changes these cells trigger in the spleen, a major immune system organ. The researchers will evaluate stroke recovery in rats without spleens – both those administered HUCB and those without HUCB treatment.

Their work may lead to a better understanding of how the body’s entire immune response impacts brain damage after stroke and how cord blood cells intervene to help protect the brain and restore function. The research may also help identify other potential targets for treatment of stroke, the third leading cause of death and number one cause of disability, Dr. Willing said.

- USF Health -

USF Health is a partnership of the University of South Florida’s colleges of medicine, nursing, and public health; the schools of biomedical sciences and physical therapy & rehabilitation sciences; and the USF Physicians Group. It is a partnership dedicated to the promise of creating a new model of health and health care. One of the nation’s top 63 public research universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, USF received more than $310 million in research contracts and grants last year.

Story by Anne DeLotto Baier
Photo by Eric Younghans/USF Health Media Center