Dunn Awards support breakthrough research

Researchers target hearing loss, genome editing of the microbiome, antibiotic resistance

Dunn Awards support breakthrough research

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Three teams of scientists at Rice University and other Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC) institutions have earned research seed grants from the John S. Dunn Collaborative Research Awards, and a fourth group won a grant to support a Texas Medical Center symposium on blood cell formation and inflammation.

This year’s winning teams will use the grants to study hearing, the microbiome and drug-resistant pathogens.

The annual program that began in 2008 supports new collaborations among researchers associated with Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC) and their partners at other institutional members of the GCC. The program is funded by the John S. Dunn Foundation and administered by the GCC.

The Dunn Foundation is a longtime supporter of collaborative research through the GCC, which builds interdisciplinary research teams and training programs in the biomedical sciences that involve the computational, chemical, mathematical and physical sciences. GCC member institutions include Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Houston, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB), the Institute of Biosciences and Technology of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The research seed grants are for $98,000 each. A separate workshop award is for $8,000. The awards support projects that foster interdisciplinary and multi-institutional research at the BRC.

Sensors will detect voltage in ears’ stereo cilia

Robert Raphael of Rice and Francois St-Pierre of Rice and Baylor plan to develop genetically encoded indicators that sense voltage dynamics in mammalian auditory systems.

The researchers’ optical method will use green fluorescent proteins to sense changes in voltage in sensitive stereocilla, the part of hair cells in the inner ear that handle the translation of mechanical sound pressure into electrical signals the brain can decode. They expect their sensors will be useful to neuroscientists who want to map rapid voltage transients and for tracking activity in fast-spiking neurons.

Raphael is an associate professor of bioengineering. St-Pierre is an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor and an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice.

Genetic maps of microbiomes

Buck Samuel of Baylor, Jonathan Silberg of Rice and Grant Hughes of UTMB are developing high-throughput genetic strategies to treat the vast community of microbes known as the microbiome that resides in organisms, including humans.

They hope to enhance CRISPR-Cas9 gene therapy through injection-free methods for targeted genetic mutations and create better tools to map microbiomes, starting with model nematodes. Ultimately, they want to develop tools that make comprehensive genetic maps of microbial systems to identify targets for future therapy.

Samuel is an assistant professor of molecular virology and microbiology, integrative molecular and biomedical sciences, quantitative and computational biosciences and developmental biology. Silberg is an associate professor of biochemistry and cell biology. Hughes is an assistant professor of pathology.

Existing drugs may target antibiotic resistance

Tor Savidge of Texas Children’s Hospital and Ashok Chopra of UTMB want to combat drug-resistant pathogens by disrupting bacteria’s protective responses during infection.

Citing 700,000 global deaths due to multiple antibiotic-resistant microbes every year, the researchers have identified two of what they hope are many current drugs that may provide broad protection against multiple antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Because the drugs are already deemed safe for use by the Food and Drug Administration, the researchers do not expect to have to go through rigorous regulatory processes for approval to use the drugs against infectious diseases.

Savidge is a pathologist and assistant director of the Microbiome Center at Texas Children’s and an associate professor of pathology and immunology and pediatrics at Baylor. Chopra is a professor of microbiology and immunology at UTMB.

Hematopoiesis and inflammation symposium

Emily Mace of Baylor and Texas Children’s will lead a symposium planned for this year. Co-principal investigators are Stephanie Watowich of MD Anderson and Pamela Wenzel of UTHealth.
The event will bring together professionals in hematology, immunology, cell biology, biophysics and oncology to discuss the complex interactions of immune cell generation, function and regulation. The organizers hope to generate new collaborative research, especially among early career scientists.

Mace is an assistant professor of pediatrics, Watowich is a professor of immunology and Wenzel is an assistant professor of pediatric surgery.

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