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October 1, 2009

Research Notes

McGowan researchers win $5M in NIH high-risk grants

Regenerative medicine researchers at Pitt have received two 2009 NIH Director’s Award grants totaling more than $5 million from the National Institutes of Health to explore new methods for cultivating replacement cells from existing tissues and organs.

The awards were part of a cluster of 115 high-risk research awards worth a collective $348 million. The five-year grants go to researchers exploring ideas with the potential to advance their fields and medical treatment.

Eric Lagasse, associate professor of pathology and a researcher at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, was awarded a $2.9 million grant to develop the concept of lymph nodes as sites for growing replacement cells for other tissues and organs.

Lagasse’s team will explore growing liver and other tissues in lymph nodes. The same principle might work for replacing pancreas cells that make insulin for patients with diabetes or immune system T cells for those who have AIDS or diseases of immunologic impairment.

• Ipsita Banerjee, assistant professor banerjeeof chemical and petroleum engineering and a McGowan faculty member, received a $2.2 million New Innovator Award to unravel how embryonic stem cells develop into mature cells and identify possible techniques for influencing their growth to suit specific organs.

Using a bottom-up approach, Banerjee will cultivate stem cells into pancreatic cells, noting molecular-level information that could be integrated into dictating cell development, such as the influence of environmental factors and gene and protein networks.

2 geology profs get NSF grants

Two geology and planetary science faculty members recently received National Science Foundation awards.

Paleoclimatology professor Mark Abbott tnabbotthas been awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) grants totaling more than $640,000 for three projects: “Nonlinearities in the Arctic Climate System During the Holocene”; “Spatial and Temporal patterns of Drought in Western North America During the Holocene,” and “The Holocene Paleomagnetic Record of the Arctic.”

Volcanology professor Ian Skilling skilling-tnwas awarded a three-year, $305,000 NSF petrology and geochemistry program grant for a project entitled “Building Ice-Age Dyngjufjoll (Askja): Processes, Products and Environments.”

Skilling’s project is a detailed study of the history of volcano-ice interaction at Askja, an Icelandic volcano.

The sedimentology, volcanology, geochemistry and geochronology study involves collaboration with scientists from Iceland and the United Kingdom to reconstruct the interaction of the volcano with the surrounding ice during the Pleistocene and to record how such a volcano preserves evidence of ice presence and ice thickness.

In addition to the paleoclimate aspect of the project, it also has direct applicability to understand the interaction of large basaltic shield volcanoes and the cryosphere on Mars.

Screening project funded

Pharmaceutical sciences professor Alexander Doemling and co-investigator Carlos Camacho, professor of computational biology, received a $403,369 NIH grant for “Anchor: A PDB-wide and Web-based Discovery Resource of Small Molecular Weight Protein Interaction (Ant)agonists.”

According to the researchers, while the number of well-characterized protein-protein interactions (PPI) increases by the thousands, the number of these PPIs that are targets of drug discovery initiatives is very small.

By developing a truly virtual screening technology of virtual libraries that by design has a built-in amino-acid hot spot, or anchor, that is burying deep into acceptor proteins complemented with experimental multi-component reaction chemistry, the project aims to create a publicly accessible resource that facilitates the discovery of (ant)agonists as tools to elucidate biological pathways or as starting points for medicinal chemistry programs.


The University Times Research Notes column reports on funding awarded to Pitt researchers as well as findings arising from University research.

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