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University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus

University of Colorado Denver, Newsroom

News release

Three CU biomedical scientists named Boettcher Investigators

7/2/2010
 

Recipients of new Webb-Waring grants announced by the Boettcher Foundation

DENVER (July 2, 2010) – Three University of Colorado researchers are among an elite corps of Colorado scientists who have earned the title “Boettcher Investigator” under a new grant program that will support biomedical research, advance the world’s understanding of cancer, Parkinson’s and other human health dilemmas, and speed therapies to patients.

The Boettcher Foundation introduced its first class of grant recipients today at the governor’s mansion during a news conference attended by Gov. Bill Ritter, CU President Bruce D. Benson, Boettcher Foundation President and Executive Director Tim Schultz and others.

The Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Awards Program (www.cu.edu/boettcher) will support the research of early-career biomedical investigators whose work has a direct impact on human health. It is the result of an innovative agreement among the Boettcher Foundation, the Webb-Waring Foundation for Biomedical Research and the University of Colorado, but scientists from other Colorado research institutions qualify for similar grants. The program’s goals are to help Colorado researchers become more competitive, keep high-quality research in the state, and contribute to Colorado’s fast-growing biomedical industry.

CU’s 2010 Boettcher Investigators are Robin Dowell, PhD, an assistant professor at CU’s Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology, or CIMB, and Gidon Felsen, PhD, and Paul Jedlicka, MD, PhD, assistant professors at the CU School of Medicine. All will share in a $700,000 pool of grant money that will fund up to three years of their research starting July 1. They are among 65 researchers from all four CU campuses who applied for the grants.

“We are proud of our young biomedical researchers and all of the promise their work holds for the future. We look forward to following their progress as they strive to unravel some of humanity’s greatest medical dilemmas,” Benson said. “Of course, we are grateful for the support of the Boettcher and Webb-Waring foundations. Like CU, they believe that by investing in education and research we can advance Colorado and our citizens.”

Some $600 million of the $1 billion in grants and contracts awarded each year to Colorado’s research institutions is for biomedical research. Thirty-eight bioscience companies based on CU intellectual property were formed between 2002 and 2007. In fiscal year 2008, CU tied for 10th nationally with other major universities for its 11 startups, according to the CU Technology Transfer Office.

“Two-thirds of the university’s tech transfer activities are related to bioscience inventions,” said Enid Ablowitz, program manager of CU’s Webb-Waring grant program. “CU is committed to supporting this important and growing sector of the Colorado economy, and the work of these up-and-coming and very gifted researchers.”

Ablowitz said the Boettcher Foundation has pre-allocated at least another $700,000 for 2011 and 2012 CU grant competitions and the foundation hopes to continue the program annually. CU’s Boettcher Investigators will use the grants to advance their biomedical research at CU-Boulder and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

CU-Boulder’s Dowell is an assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and will use her grant to advance research into why closely related people respond differently to drug treatments. Her work has the potential to assess more accurately the efficacy of specific treatments for individual patients. “The rapid drop in the cost of genome sequencing promises to usher in an era of personalized medicine, where genome information will be utilized in determining appropriate medical treatment,” she wrote in her grant proposal.

Of her grant award, she said, “The Boettcher Award provides the resources necessary to establish my laboratory at the forefront of translational bioinformatics. I am excited about this opportunity.”

Felsen is an assistant professor of physiology and biophysics in the CU School of Medicine, and will use his grant to explore how deep brain stimulation can relieve gait and balance problems among patients with Parkinson’s disease. “The motor impairments that make Parkinson’s disease so debilitating most directly result from abnormal levels of activity in brain regions that control motor output,” he wrote in his grant proposal.

He said he was grateful for the grant because it will provide him with the opportunity to carry out his project, which “should lead to a better understanding of how brain activity is changed by Parkinson’s disease, and perhaps how normal brain function may be restored.”

Jedlicka is a pediatric pathologist and cancer biologist at the CU School of Medicine, and will use his grant to further research into the causes and treatment of Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer that afflicts the bones and soft tissues of children and young adults. When the cancer spreads, a child’s chances of surviving the disease is 25 percent, and plummets to 10 percent among children who have a relapse, he said.

“It is a very aggressive cancer with a poor long-term outcome. Even with the best chemotherapy, long-term patient survival is about 50 percent,” Jedlicka wrote in his grant application letter.

Of his grant he said, “As a starting independent investigator in tight economic times, getting support from the Boettcher Foundation’s Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Program is a tremendous boost for our research efforts. The grant will provide critical resources to help move our work forward.”

Jedlicka also received a two-year, $80,000 Young Investigator Award from the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer to continue work on microRNAs identified by his laboratory that may suppress Ewing’s sarcoma tumors. He’ll use the Boettcher Investigator funding to look at other sets of microRNA that may regulate the development of Ewing’s sarcoma.

 “These grants are huge for us,” he said. “We’re a new lab, and these are new projects for which we don’t have major funding yet. The grants represent both validation of the work that we’ve already done and resources to move forward to get NIH or ACS funding. It’s a huge stepping stone to establishing our lab as a Ewing’s sarcoma microRNA lab, which is our goal.”

Ewing’s sarcoma is an aggressive cancer of the bone and soft tissue that mostly affects boys age 5 to 25, according to the National Cancer Institute. Only about half of patients survive initial treatment if the cancer hasn’t spread. If it recurs, only 10 percent survive. Jedlicka’s interest in the disease is several-fold.

“I’m a pediatric pathologist on the clinical side, and this is a tumor we see fairly regularly and know is aggressive and hard to treat,” Jedlicka said. “My scientific background is in Ets transcription factors, which are intimately involved in the development of Ewing’s sarcoma, so the biology of this cancer has always been interesting to me.  And very little is known about microRNAs in pediatric cancers and sarcomas, which are all my areas of interest.”

He says Ewing’s is a cryptic disease, with limited scientific understanding of how it arises or why it’s so aggressive. “Our ultimate goal is to identify the Achilles heel of this cancer and potentially use microRNA as a new therapy, but before we get there, we have to understand more about what these molecules do in Ewing’s sarcoma,” he said.

David Braddock, associate vice president who served as research officer for the new Boettcher Foundation program said, "In this first year, we've learned a lot about the strength and quality of CU's early career researchers and about the implementation of this exciting new source for grant support. We look forward to building a cadre of Boettcher Investigators and to the impact of their research."

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Contact: Caitlin Jenney, 303.315.6376, caitlin.jenney@ucdenver.edu