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National Institutes of Health Funding Powers Wistar Science in 2020

Approaching the end of the year, Wistar takes stock of its federal funding performance.

During the 2020 fiscal year of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — the U.S. government agency that supports biomedical research, it funded Wistar research by granting more than $43M in existing and newly awarded grants.

"Our ability to attract and maintain federal funding is vital for the success of our enterprise and speaks volumes to the quality of the science being pursued at Wistar," said Dario C. Altieri, M.D., president and CEO, director of the Institute’s Cancer Center and the Robert & Penny Fox Distinguished Professor. "NIH grants fuel some of our largest and most ambitious research projects and our collaborative efforts and support our Cancer Center, a powerhouse of discoveries and advanced technologies in the region."

The NIH is made up of 27 Institutes and Centers, each with a specific research focus on particular diseases or body systems, working together to support the nation’s research efforts. The vast majority of Wistar’s active grants are administered by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), reflecting Wistar’s vast commitment to cancer research. The second largest pool of grants comes from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which supports basic and applied research on infectious, immunologic and allergic diseases, powering Wistar investigations into HIV, Epstein-Barr Virus, antimicrobial resistant bacteria, and tuberculosis.

Highlights from newly awarded grants include:

  • Two large grants over four and five years, respectively, to Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen, Ph.D., assistant professor in The Wistar Institute Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center, for his glycoimmunology research in HIV. Glycoimmunology is an emerging field focused on the role of sugar molecules present at the surface of our cells, also referred to as glycans or carbohydrates, in mediating immune responses.
     
    The new funding will support Abdel-Mohsen’s work investigating the role of altered host sugar repertoire, or glycome, in gut and brain inflammation and cognitive disorders in HIV. This research aims to discover new mechanisms that could be targeted to prevent or treat chronic inflammation that persists in individuals living with HIV despite antiretroviral therapy. 
     
    Applying a similar research paradigm, Abdel-Mohsen obtained additional funding to expand his research to COVID-19. He seeks to understand the integrity of the intestinal barrier in inflammation and COVID-19 pathogenesis. SARS-CoV-2 infection alters the structure of the gut wall making it more permeable to intestinal microbes that can then enter and circulate in the blood. This may lead to a loss of anti-inflammatory circulating carbohydrate molecules in the body, which results in inflammation and worse disease outcomes. This research will lay the groundwork for developing novel biomarkers for disease risk and therapeutic interventions for the COVID-19-induced cytokine storm to prevent severe outcomes and death.
     
  • A five-year grant to Qing Chen, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in The Wistar Institute Cancer Center, for her studies on brain metastasis, which causes an increasingly heavy clinical burden due to its rising incidence and the limited efficacy of existing therapies. Chen is investigating the interaction between cancer cells and the surrounding brain cells to identify key mechanisms that could be targeted to disrupt this interaction and the cancer’s ability to grow in the brain, and eventually provide more effective therapies for cancer patients.
     
  • A five-year grant awarded to Maureen Murphy, Ph.D., Ira Brind Professor and program leader in The Wistar Institute Cancer Center, to further her studies on the p53 protein, a master regulator of numerous functions in the cell and frequently mutated in cancer. In particular, the Murphy lab is interested in the effects of specific genetic variants of p53 on the tumor-promoting ability of the mutant p53 protein. Murphy and her team investigate how these genetic variants affect the cancer risk in different populations, and this research has important implications for informing personalized medicine  approaches.
     
  • A five-year grant to Rugang Zhang, Ph.D., professor and deputy director of The Wistar Institute Cancer Center, that enables the Zhang lab to study the mechanisms that allow a small number of “dormant” tumor cells to persist in the body after therapy. These cells can awaken from dormancy and start proliferating to give rise to metastases even years after the onset of the primary tumor. Elucidating the underlying mechanisms of tumor dormancy is crucial to achieve cancer eradication. 
     
  • Two NIH Pathway to Independence Awards bestowed to staff scientists Thibaut Barnoud and Sergey Karakashev, both working in Wistar Institute Cancer Center labs. This prestigious and highly sought-after award supports outstanding postdoctoral researchers in their transition from mentored training to and independent faculty position and boosts the awardees’ competitiveness in the job market.

The information on dollar amounts disclosed in this blog is publicly available and has been obtained through the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT).