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Nov. 29, 2017 - USA COM Announces Intramural Grants Awardees
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From left: Dr. Mark Taylor, Dr. Donna Cioffi, Dr. Mike Lin, Dr. Lawrence LeClaire and Dr. Robert Barrington.

The University of South Alabama College of Medicine recently announced the recipients of the 2017 College of Medicine Faculty Intramural Grants Program Research Awards, which provides funds through an annual competition to five full-time basic science faculty members.

Drs. Robert Barrington, associate professor of microbiology and immunology; Donna Cioffi, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; Lawrence LeClaire, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; Mike Lin, assistant professor of physiology and cell biology; and Mark Taylor, associate professor of physiology and cell biology, each received one-year awards of up to $50,000.

According to Dr. Mary Townsley, senior associate dean of the USA College of Medicine, the research funds provided by the Intramural Grants Program enables sustained laboratory progress between extramural grant funding periods and supports the development of both new research ideas and new critical preliminary data for extramural proposal submissions. “Each year, the USA College of Medicine will commit $250,000 to this program to provide individual one-year awards of up to $50,000 in direct costs,” she said. “Faculty members in the USA College of Medicine basic science departments are encouraged to submit ‘mini-proposals’ to compete for these awards each September.”

According to Dr. Barrington, the USA College of Medicine Intramural Grants Program provides an outstanding mechanism to support cutting-edge research in a new era where federal funding is more limited. “This generous support provided will allow investigators to expand and strengthen preliminary experimental data to build more competitive extramural proposals,” he said.

Dr. Barrington’s research project, “Underlying Mechanisms Mediating Autoimmune Pulmonary Alveolar Proteinosis,” explores the pathways responsible for cytokine-specific antibody-mediated diseases.

“My laboratory has discovered the first model for autoimmune pulmonary alveolar proteinosis (ApAP), a disease caused by antibodies to a cytokine called GM-CSF,” he said. “Our preliminary studies suggest that GM-CSF-specific antibodies produced in individuals with and without disease differ, and these key differences may explain the disease state. We hope to identify new therapeutic strategies aimed at helping the 100,000-200,000 individuals in the United States who are diagnosed with this deadly disease.”

Dr. Cioffi also received the award to continue her research, which may offer pharmacological benefits against some inflammatory conditions.

“In inflammatory conditions, calcium can enter endothelial cells through specific ion channels — one of which is the ISOC channel — and cause disruption of the endothelial barrier,” Dr. Cioffi said. “We have identified two proteins, FKBP51 and PP5C, which act together to inhibit the ISOC channel and thereby protect the endothelial barrier from disruption.”

Dr. Cioffi said the support this program offers will ultimately lead to increased extramural funding, which will benefit the USA College of Medicine financially and help gain both national and international recognition.

According to Dr. LeClaire, another recipient of the Intramural Grants Research Award, his lab will use the research funds to discover new pharmaceuticals to treat fungal infections.

His project, “Actin-associated Proteins of the Aspergillus Cytoskeleton,” examines the cell structures inside fungi. “Currently, there are very few drugs available for fighting fungal infections in patients and new resistant strains of fungi are emerging that cannot be treated,” he said.

Dr. Lin is using the award to further study the causative mechanisms leading to abrupt cognitive impairment among patients in intensive care units. His project tests the hypothesis that endothelium-derived cytotoxins directly impair neural function after bacterial pneumonia infection.

“Patients in intensive care units are at a high risk for long-term health threats including cognitive impairment,” Dr. Lin said. “The correlation was only recently revealed after large-scale follow-up cognitive assessments on intensive patient survivors once discharged from the hospital were conducted. There are testimonials, reviews and calls-to-action on many critical care websites and in journal issues over the last two to three years on this public health crisis.”

According to Dr. Lin, his study aims to gain insight on this phenomenon that remains unclear. “The causative mechanisms that lead to abrupt cognitive impairment are not attributable to age, gender, relative brain hypoxia, anesthetics or sedatives,” he said. “My proposed study offers a mechanism that may explain cognitive dysfunction in patients suffering from hospital-acquired pneumonia.”

Dr. Taylor said the funds provided by the intramural grants program will allow him to further study vibrio induced sepsis, a fatal bacterial infection commonly seen among the Gulf Coast.

“Consumption of raw seafood or exposure of an open wound to contaminated water can result in a fatal bacterial infection,” he said. “This is a real threat in our region and such infections are often lethal due to rapid progression to septic shock, a condition in which the blood-borne infection essential shuts down the cardiovascular system.”

According to Dr. Taylor the goal of his project is to identify the induced toxic factor and characterize its specific effects on the endothelial cells, which may reveal new targets for therapy against Vibrio-induced sepsis.

Dr. Taylor said he is excited to be one of the first recipients to receive funding from this new program. “As external funding becomes increasingly scarce, the Intramural Grants Program provides a crucial mechanism to support novel research initiatives and allow exciting new biomedical research questions to move from the chalkboard to the lab, and eventually to the bedside,” he said.

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