UNC Gets Lion’s Share of New Medical Research Grants

Three of UNC’s most renowned scientists have received National Institutes of Health grants worth about $5 million to establish research centers in obesity, the study of inflammation in human disease, and the use of data management in probing genetic abnormalities.

The grants are part of a new thrust in the NIH – called the Roadmap for Medical Research – that is designed to transform the nation’s medical research capabilities and move discoveries into practical application quicker. Carolina received three of the 21 grants given nationally – the only school to have three. With Duke University receiving one, almost a fourth of them went to the Triangle.

The first grants are for three years and primarily will fund planning. UNC officials said this investment by the NIH carries a high likelihood of renewal. Provost Robert Shelton and research Vice Chancellor Tony Waldrop ’74 said that what most impressed the NIH was the University’s knack for involving different disciplines within and outside the health sciences in research.

“At Carolina, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to conduct the kind of research that brings different fields of knowledge to bear on complex problems in science at the same time,” Waldrop said.

Shelton added, “You couldn’t do this in a one-dimensional university.”

Dr. Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition in UNC’s schools of public health and medicine, will direct the new obesity center. While obesity demands medical study, it also is a social problem that should involve, for instance, a UNC faculty member who is working on a program to encourage children to walk to school.

“Researchers who will be engaged in this effort come from nutrition, epidemiology, health behavior, urban planning, economics, physiology, psychology, psychiatry, genetics and clinical medicine,” Popkin said.

Dr. R. Balfour Sartor, professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology and director of UNC’s Multidisciplinary Center for Irritable Bowel Disease and Treatment, will lead a program to find new noninvasive ways to study inflammation. Dr. Etta Pisano, professor of radiology and biomedical engineering and chief of breast imaging, said inflammation “probably underlies most human illness.” Pisano has done pioneering work in the use of imaging to study breast cancer. Imaging typically involves the patient ingesting or being injected with solutions that are then evaluated using technology such as MRI, tomography and ultrasound.

The new center will look toward improved chemical solutions and imaging technology. It has implications across the study of disease, including cancer, arthritis, and cardio and gastro-intestinal disease.

Geneticists, experts in statistics and biostatistics and computer scientists will combine their efforts at using data collection, management and analysis to identify the complex genetic traits underlying human diseases. Daniel A. Reed, vice chancellor for information technology, will direct the new Carolina Center for Exploratory Genetic Analysis.

“We believe the next major breakthroughs in our understanding of biology and disease will come from the integrated analysis of genetic data and its expression in people,” Reed said.

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