Minnesota Partnership Launches Five New Research Projects

ROCHESTER, Minn. — In its ongoing effort to target the state’s most pressing health concerns, the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics has launched five new research projects through competitive awards totaling over $3.5 million in state-funded support. The new projects focus on diabetes, cancer, heart disease and neurological diseases — all among Minnesota’s most concerning, and costly, medical ailments.

“We continue to be impressed by the efforts of the researchers at Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota to find ways to work together on projects that have a strong chance one day to improve people’s health while also strengthening the state’s economy,” says Eric Wieben, Ph.D., Partnership director for Mayo Clinic. “By combining the skills and resources of the state’s two largest research institutions, we’re able to create research opportunities that might not otherwise be possible.”

“The projects being funded this year represent some of the best science anywhere, and encompass innovative approaches to some of the most important health issues in Minnesota,” says Tucker LeBien, Ph.D., Partnership director for the University. “The research performed by these teams could ultimately impact the lives of many Minnesotans and citizens beyond our borders.”

Founded in 2003, the Minnesota Partnership is a collaborative initiative among Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota. Every year it awards two-year grants for select projects in which Mayo Clinic and University of Minnesota researchers combine forces to conduct research that neither institution would be able to do on its own. The goal is to develop findings that will attract continuing support from federal or private sources, or by developing intellectual property that may eventually be marketed. To learn more about the Partnership, visit its website at www.minnesotapartnership.info.

These projects received funding from the Partnership: Novel Tissue Engineering of Patient-Specific Islet Cells for Diabetes Therapy – $648,645
Jonathan M.W. Slack, Ph.D., F.Med.Sci, University of Minnesota; and Yasuhiro Ikeda, D.V.M., Ph.D., Mayo Clinic

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. More than 180 million people worldwide have the disease, and approximately $170 billion of Medicare funding is spent on diabetes-related issues. The cost to Minnesota is estimated to exceed $2.5 billion annually.

One new method for treating diabetes is an islet transplant. Islets are clusters of cells found in the pancreas. Islets secrete hormones, including those that regulate glucose (blood sugar) levels. In some types of diabetes the immune system destroys insulin-producing cells, preventing the body from controlling blood sugar levels. In an islet transplant, insulin-producing cells are taken from the pancreas of a deceased organ donor and grafted into a patient. Unfortunately, the supply of islets is limited and patients who get the procedure must take anti-rejection medication for the rest of their lives.

This study proposes using induced pluripotent stem cells, which are similar to embryonic stem cells but can be grown from adult tissues to create insulin-producing cells that can be used for islet transplants. This approach would solve the problems of limited supply and rejection because patients provide their own cells to produce the new islets. If successful, this approach could limit the need for transplants.

This project supports the “Decade of Discovery,” the Partnership’s initiative to optimally treat and, ultimately, cure Type I and Type II diabetes. The goal is to be able to treat all diabetes symptoms at the end of 10 years and in the next 15 years develop a cure for the disease using cellular and genetic tools.

Microfluidic Neurotechnology for Neuronal Survival and Regeneration – $799,516
Sang-Hyun Oh, Ph.D., University of Minnesota; and Moses Rodriguez, M.D., Mayo Clinic

What if it was possible to stop the loss of neurologic function caused by diseases such as multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s disease? Or, better yet, can we reverse the neurological damage caused by such diseases?

Neurons, or nerve cells, have axons: long fibers that send outgoing messages from those cells. This research project will study the signaling process of the axons, and how the use of key antibodies may positively impact those axons and protect the neurons to improve neurologic function. The long-term goal is to produce antibodies that can be used to treat multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and even spinal cord injuries and strokes.

Cancer Drug Target Discovery from Genetic Interactions – $915,508
Chad Myers, Ph.D., University of Minnesota; and Dennis Wigle, M.D., Ph.D., Mayo Clinic

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in Minnesota and in the United States, with more than a half-million cancer deaths nationwide in 2007. With that in mind, researchers will explore an exciting new avenue for cancer treatment called “synthetic lethality.” This approach targets the disruption of cancer cells through mutation of genes. Synthetic lethality is achieved when two genes are mutated to cause the death of a cell, where neither gene, mutated alone, could cause this to occur. This project will seek to discover genetic mutation combinations that will target and destroy cancerous cells while leaving noncancerous cells intact. The goal is to eventually create as many as 20 new drug candidates.

Function of Patient-Specific iPSC-derived Endothelium – $718,002
Robert Simari, M.D., Mayo Clinic; and Dan Kaufman, M.D., Ph.D., University of Minnesota

Vascular disease — any condition that harms blood flow — impacts millions of people each year in the form of heart attacks, strokes and other major health problems. This study will focus on treating vascular disease through the generation of new endothelial cells. These cells line the walls of the circulatory system and aid in blood flow. By creating new endothelial cells in patients whose cells are dysfunctional, proper blood flow — or at least improved blood flow — may be restored. Long term, this research could lead to new treatments for heart disease and other vascular disorders.

Development of Antibodies for the Detection of Topoisomerase I- and Topoisomerase II-DNA complexes – $434,252
Scott Kaufmann, M.D., Ph.D., Mayo Clinic; and Daniel Harki, Ph.D., University of Minnesota

Being able to rapidly and simply determine if a cancer treatment was working could not only help assure that patients are on the right track in their fight with the disease, but also could be used to screen new potential cancer drugs. Building on previous research, this study aims to develop new ways to monitor how a particular therapy is working for a patient by recognizing the effect of the treatment at a genetic level. Focusing on topoisomerase — enzymes vital to the proper function and stabilization of DNA — researchers will produce antibodies that can assess if DNA stabilization has taken place in tumor cells after drugs have been administered. Success could mean improved treatments for breast, ovarian, lung and colon cancer.

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