August 30, 2016

University earns $11.3M NIH grant to study biomolecular communication

James Takacs (left) and Concetta DiRusso.
Craig Chandler | University Communications

Craig Chandler | University Communications
James Takacs (left) and Concetta DiRusso will lead the university's Center for Integrated Biomolecular Communication.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has earned an $11.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a research center focused on investigating cellular level miscommunications that contribute to complex diseases such as cancer, diabetes and chronic liver disease.

A five-year grant from NIH’s Center of Biomedical Research Excellence, or COBRE, program will support the university’s Center for Integrated Biomolecular Communication, or CIBC. The NIH COBRE program funds health-related research and fosters faculty development and research infrastructure.

“This new center at the leading edge of interdisciplinary biomedical research further expands the university’s expertise and our critically important collaborations with the University of Nebraska Medical Center,” Chancellor Ronnie Green said.

The center will focus on biomolecular communication. As with any successful team effort, the human body’s cells must communicate effectively to function properly. Diseases can result from miscommunications within or between cells and tissues due to environmental disturbances, pathogens or other causes.

To better understand how cells communicate and miscommunicate, the center aims to foster interdisciplinary research collaborations by combining new techniques to investigate disease pathways that arise from miscommunication at the molecular level.

Organizers envision the CIBC as a hub for interdisciplinary collaborations among Nebraska’s biomedical researchers. The center also will involve faculty at University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“We want the center to be a mixing chamber of ideas,” said center director James Takacs, Charles J. Mach University Professor of Chemistry. “The goal is to bring together outstanding researchers from several disciplines and to use the center to facilitate an integrated approach. An interdisciplinary team working together will bring a unique perspective to complex diseases.”

The center will foster a systems approach, combining the research activities of chemists, biochemists, engineers and bioinformaticists. It will connect researchers developing new molecular probes and analytical techniques with those unraveling molecular mechanisms of diseases.

One research collaboration, for example, will model communication pathways between microorganisms in the gut. Another will study the interactions involved in liver disease progression.

“Bringing in a multilevel approach to a problem opens opportunities that will make us more competitive and more effective in research,” Takacs said. “It’s basic research, but this is where the therapies of the future are going to come from.”

The center will augment the university’s strength in biomedical research by building research expertise through mentoring and supporting early career scientists. It also will leverage and enlarge existing facilities in bioinformatics and systems biology.

“The university has very successful Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence in virology and redox science,” said co-director Concetta DiRusso, George W. Holmes University Professor of Biochemistry. “Those centers have helped build infrastructure and propelled the careers of young scientists in specific areas of biomedical research. We plan to build on those past successes.”

This center is the university’s fourth NIH Center for Biomedical Excellence. The Nebraska Center for Virology was established in 2000, the Redox Biology Center was launched in 2002 and the Nebraska Center for the Prevention of Obesity Diseases through Dietary Molecules was created in 2014. COBRE programs are managed by the National Institute for General Medical Sciences.

“Since the university was awarded its first COBRE in 2000, we have continued to grow our biomedical research and advance knowledge of some of society’s most complex health challenges, including HIV and obesity,” said Prem Paul, the university’s former vice chancellor for research and economic development, who stepped down on Monday. “This center continues this tradition of cutting edge of research.”

University earns $11.3M NIH grant to study biomolecular communication