Program earns NIH grant to study molecular drivers of disease

Program earns NIH grant to study molecular drivers of disease

Melanie Simpson (left) supervises doctoral student Abby Gelb, a trainee in UNL's NIH-funded Molecular Mechanisms of Disease program.
Craig Chandler | University Communications
Melanie Simpson (left) supervises doctoral student Abby Gelb, a trainee in UNL's NIH-funded Molecular Mechanisms of Disease program.

Whether metastasizing as cancer, progressing as Alzheimer’s or spreading as HIV, nearly all human disease ultimately originates from a staggering parade of molecular interactions occurring throughout the body.

With the support of a new five-year, $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln training program will expand efforts to combat and treat these outcomes by preparing more doctoral students for careers spent researching their molecular catalysts.

Initiated as a pilot program in 2013, the Molecular Mechanisms of Disease program enlists the expertise of 28 faculty mentors who span seven departments. The new NIH support will allow the program to add a total of 30 doctoral trainees over the next five years.

Nebraska also becomes the first among nine neighboring Midwestern states to offer an NIH-funded training program in the cellular, biochemical and molecular sciences, according to founding director Melanie Simpson.

Simpson said the program aims to offer a well-rounded experience that will equip students with every tool they need to succeed upon graduating. This includes mentor-supervised research training and a rigorous curriculum that hones both conceptual knowledge and critical professional skills such as grant-writing.

Participants also travel to national conferences, coordinate career development workshops and tour regional industries through a partnership with the university’s NUtech Ventures office.

Each aspect of the program incorporates a collaborative, multidisciplinary emphasis that Simpson described as essential to biomedical research.

“The greatest recent advances have been made by extraordinary teams of people who represent different perspectives and expertise,” said Simpson, a Susan J. Rosowski Professor of biochemistry. “For student trainees to become future interdisciplinary team scientists, they must be trained in an environment that immerses them in this culture. Our program accomplishes this by focusing research training in nationally recognized aspects of disease research that are well-represented at UNL.”

To build an appropriately broad knowledge base, trainees have the opportunity to rotate among labs in four research areas – molecular signaling, metabolic integrity, oxidative stress and disease microenvironment – before delving more deeply into whichever most interests them.

“The public has an expectation that our nation’s scientists will develop preventive and therapeutic strategies to control disease,” Simpson said. “For us to do that, we need a thorough knowledge of how cellular processes operate abnormally at the molecular level during disease initiation and progression so that we know where there are target points for new drugs or preventive measures.”

Second-year trainee Christina Wilson, who expects to graduate with her doctorate in 2016, works in the laboratory of assistant professor and program mentor Srivatsan Kidambi. Together, they are applying engineering principles and biochemistry techniques to assess how brain cells known as astrocytes interact with other types, including neurons, to either maintain healthy brain functioning or advance disease.

“Because my research is in an emerging field and extremely cross-disciplinary, the relationships I have created through the MMoD program have been critical to the advancement of my research,” Wilson said.

Wilson singled out the program’s annual spring symposium, which features visiting scholars from across the country, as an especially memorable aspect of the program. It was there that Wilson gave a talk on her research before receiving congratulations and advice from several members of the audience.

“It was such an honor to have so many wise and diversely experienced researchers approach me … and provide new perspectives on my research,” she said. “The program has provided me with so many unique opportunities to enhance my research career that I could not have found elsewhere.”

The MMoD program will receive support from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences under award number 1T32GM107001-01A1.