First K30 Scholar Wins NIH Clinical Scientist Development Award

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Dr. Brian Giunta is investigating whether the green tea extract EGCG may protect the brain against dementia.

A member of the USF Health’s inaugural class of K30 scholars is the first to earn a prestigious federal grant intended to help young clinical scientists build their academic research careers.

Brian Giunta, MD, has been awarded a four-year, $629,500 Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Award (K08 grant) from the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Giunta, a research physician and instructor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, is one of 12 junior faculty members enrolled in the NIH-sponsored K30 Scholars in Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR) program at USF Health. Dr. Giunta will graduate from the SPOR program in May, earning a master’s degree in medical sciences with a concentration in clinical and translational research. He plans to continue in the newly approved PhD concentration in clinical and translational research after this spring.

The K30 SPOR program, begun at USF Health in 2005, is helping to prepare the next generation of clinical researchers. It is designed to attract talented individuals to careers in patient-oriented research and provide them with the critical skills needed to translate basic discoveries into clinical treatments.

“Brian’s achievement is exactly what the K30 scholars program was meant to do — allow young, clinically-trained faculty to generate questions and conduct investigator-generated research needed to advance the field of medicine,” said Phillip J. Marty, PhD, co-principal investigator for the SPOR program and associate vice president for USF Health. “It’s a great milestone for our relatively young program.”

“Facilitating bench to bedside-community research is the cornerstone of USF Health’s vision to continue to build global recognition in interdisciplinary translational and clinical research” said Abdul S. Rao, MD, MA, DPhil, senior associate vice president, USF Health. “To materialize this bold vision, junior physician-scientists have to be formally trained in conducting meaningful clinical research and Brian’s accomplishments are a testimony of the success of this program.”

“The mentored awards (K08 and K01) are one of the most important mechanisms NIH has to bring scientists early in their careers, especially clinicians, into research. They enable us to attract some of the most promising talent available, and we have a sure winner in Dr. Brian Giunta,” said Francisco Fernandez, MD, chair of psychiatry.

“If academic departments of psychiatry are to serve as the intellectual home base for our discipline, we must keep training investigators with broad and varied expertise, especially if we are to solve the problem of disorders of the mind.”

Patricia Emmanuel, MD, associate dean for clinical research at the USF College of Medicine, said Dr. Giunta’s research success would be highlighted in USF Health’s upcoming application to NIH for an institutional Clinical and Translational Science Award

“The K08 grants are difficult to get,” Dr. Emmanuel said. “This is an honor for the individual investigator, the mentor and our institution because it indicates the NIH realizes we’re committed to developing our translational and clinical research enterprise.”

USF neuroscientist and senior faculty member Jun Tan, MD, PhD, has mentored Dr. Giunta for the last two years out of the neuroimmulogy laboratories in the Silver Child Development Center.

Dr. Tan will help oversee Dr. Giunta’s work on the K08 grant, which will examine the role of the neurotoxic HIV protein Tat in the development of Alzheimer’s-like brain damage. Dr. Giunta and Dr. Tan have developed a new mouse model for HIV-induced Alzheimer’s disease and are using the model to evaluate whether the green-tea derived compound EGCG may protect the brain against dementia.

The K08 grant will support 75 percent of Dr. Giunta’s salary over four years so he can focus on setting up his own lab space, generating preliminary data, writing grant proposals and getting more publications in the pipeline – all activities needed to lay the foundation for an independent research career.

Dr. Giunta credits Dr. Fernandez, as well as Dr. Tan, Dr. Marty, Kenneth Zuckerman, MD principal investigator for the SPOR program; and Sandra Anderson, MEd, senior research administrator, for providing the assistance needed to successfully compete for the grant. “Dr. Fernandez has always been very supportive in allowing clinicians time to do basic and translational research,” Dr. Giunta said. “I never would have been able to get this award without having a portion of my time blocked out to participate in the K30 scholars program.”

Dr. Giunta received his MD degree from the USF College of Medicine in 2004, followed by an internship in psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC. He previously worked as a clinician in the USF Memory Disorders Clinic. He is the recipient of a 2007 American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Young Investigator Award.

As a physician scientist, Dr. Giunta said, he enjoys the challenges of bridging the gap between laboratory-based research findings and patient care.

“We still don’t fully understand how the normal brain works – even less so how it malfunctions in people with neuropsychiatric disorders,” he said. “By drawing on experiences and questions that arise in the clinical setting, I have the opportunity to bring ideas back to the laboratory and develop experiments that may lead to new ways of treating diseases like Alzheimer’s.”

USF’s Health’s K30 SPOR program is looking for more physicians interested in translational and clinical research to benefit from the NIH-funded program, which is available in only limited academic health science centers in the United States, Dr. Rao said.

- Story by Anne DeLotto Baier/USF Health Communications