Partners in Research Award Recipients Share Stories and Findings

(June 1, 2018) — Partners in Research, a program that brings together scientists and science-minded members of the community, supports early stage ideas that have the potential to transform scientists’ understanding of medicine. At a recent research showcase, Partners in Research grant recipients told funders how their awards have helped them push their science forward.

“We focus a lot on early stage research, the ideas that are just getting formed in people’s minds that could lead to a major breakthrough and where it’s very difficult to get funding anywhere else because it’s so early and so high risk,” said Robert Clarke, PhD, DSc, dean for research at Georgetown University Medical Center. “So that’s what you’ll hear a little about today.”

In its last awards cycle, Partners in Research funded seven projects. Researchers representing each project spoke at the May 15 event at the Residence of the Swiss ambassador in Washington, D.C.

Most of the 2017 Partners in Research awardees received grants of $30,000, but Rebecca Riggins, PhD, assistant professor of oncology, received the first Research Breakthrough Award of $100,000, intended to support “high-risk research and challenge investigators to push boundaries to advance our goal of enhancing the health and well-being of those we serve.”

Riggins previously received an award from Partners in Research in 2012. With her training in breast cancer, Riggins was working with a graduate student when she found that her work may have implications for patients with glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain tumor with few treatment options.

“We knew this was an unmet need and we were very interested to get started,” Riggins said. “But if I, as a breast cancer scientist, write a grant to a funding agency to study brain cancer, I’m going to be laughed out of the room. And in fact, I was, many times. But that’s when Partners came to the rescue.”

With the 2017 Research Breakthrough Award, she has been working to develop a model to see whether a drug targeting a specific hormone receptor can work inside the brain to help glioblastoma patients. A recent publication in Scientific Reports featuring research from Riggins’ lab acknowledged Partners in Research.

“So much of science is a detective story but when you’re trying to craft a proposal for a funding agency that’s not really tolerant of risk, it’s hard to be your true creative self,” Riggins said. “And so this is where we really get to shine in that respect and I would very much like to say thank you for these opportunities, for all of us, and we’re grateful for your continued support to keep pushing these projects along.”

“We Didn’t Want to Let a Good Idea Die”

Thanks to Partners in Research, Ghazaul Dezfuli, PhD, a researcher studying obesity, was able to pursue an idea that had been lingering in the back of her mind.

“I’m looking for receptor target sites for a weight loss drug, and so I had a mouse model that I was studying and I was able to study that with Partners, but I was also able to study another mouse model because the money went a long way for me,” Dezfuli said. “So through the second mouse model, I was able to find that the receptor that I’m interested in and potential site for a weight loss drug is actually affecting reward circuits in the brain. And that’s pretty novel.”

“I was very, very pleased and very, very thankful for the support of Partners,” she added.

Gholam Motamedi, MD, professor of neurology, used his award from Partners in Research to study whether brain stimulation can “reshape the brain networks to treat insomnia” and other conditions. Before connecting with Partners in Research, Motamedi spent 10 years trying to identify potential funders to support his research idea.

“We didn’t want to let a good idea die because there’s no funding, and this was the miracle of this Partners in Research funding that allowed us to take this off and get started,” he said. “The idea did not die and it’s moving forward.”

Promoting Collaboration

As a clinical researcher, Rhonda Friedman, PhD, professor of neurology, develops treatments for alexia, which occurs when someone loses the ability to read. “We work directly with the patients and it’s so, so rewarding because we can see the improvement over time,” she said. “They tell us, wow, you really made a difference in my life, now I can read to my granddaughter, now I can read labels on bottles that I couldn’t read before.”

Receiving support from Partners in Research allowed Friedman to collaborate. “What I’ve been able to do with the Partners money is join with a colleague of mine who is more experienced in a different type of technique which involves brain stimulation, a thing I never could have done by myself, and together we are doing this pilot study,” she said.

With the grant from Partners in Research, Joanna Kitlinska, PhD, associate professor in biochemistry, and molecular and cellular biology, and Sonia de Assis, PhD, assistant professor of oncology, collaborated on research to identify risk factors for the development of neuroendocrine tumors in babies and young children. Specifically, they studied the impact of stress in fathers before conception on cancer development in their future children.

“Thanks to your generous funding, we were to do a small pilot study and we are very excited because the results are really promising,” Kitlinska said. “So we are very hopeful and looking forward and extremely grateful because we knew that this was a crazy idea and it’s very difficult to get funding for such an idea.”

Moving Forward

Since receiving an award from Partners in Research, Valeria Avdoshina, PhD, assistant professor in neuroscience, has developed a drug to prevent HIV-associated neurodegeneration that may also have implications for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and more.

The next steps for her research will involve working with scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “They actually may make your own cells to deliver drugs inside the brain,” Avdoshina said. “So now that is our next step and we are going to start it in a few weeks.”

Avdoshina thanked Partners in Research for funding high-risk, high reward research. “We are so excited and it definitely wouldn’t have happened without your support,” she said.

Patrick Forcelli, PhD, assistant professor in pharmacology, together with Kathryn Sandberg, PhD, professor of medicine, used the award from Partners in Research to create a model that has helped them understand the way that ovarian hormone loss impacts cognitive function. “Now that we have this model in place, we can start trying to test therapies,” Forcelli said. “And this was really the big first step — get the model and now we can start looking for ways to intervene to try to help cognitive function and help emotional function in individuals that have undergone this hormone loss.”

Moreover, the data Forcelli and Sandberg produced with the award from Partners in Research will give them the opportunity to compete for a $250,000 NIH grant for research on cognitive dysfunction and aging. “Because we have preliminary data that we obtained with Partners support, we’ll be able to apply for this,” he said. “Without Partners support, we wouldn’t even be in a position to think about applying. So thank you for that.”

Kat Zambon
GUMC Communications