ND-INBRE team receives multiple grants from National Institutes of Health

A team of UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) biomedical researchers affiliated with North Dakota’s IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) has received a collaboration award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Emily Biggane, Ph.D., research faculty at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, N.D., and Archana Dhasarathy, Ph.D., associate professor in the SMHS Department of Biomedical Sciences and program coordinator of the School’s Epigenomics of Development and Disease research core, were awarded approximately $140,000 for the INBRE project.

The goal of this one-year grant is both to promote biomedical research opportunities for UTTC undergraduate students, via the SMHS, and to strengthen mentoring and research support through two-way collaboration between the INBRE program at UTTC and UND’s epigenomics research core.

INBRE programs are NIH-based projects that promote the development, coordination, and sharing of research resources and expertise between institutions to expand research opportunities for undergraduate students in particular and increase the number of competitive investigators at INBRE institutions. Coordinated at UND by SMHS professor of pathology Don Sens, Ph.D., principal investigator for ND-INBRE, the program promotes not only biomedical research across the state, but helps maintain the pipeline for the state’s healthcare workforce, training high school students and college undergraduates in biomedical research skills and knowledge creation.

“This collaboration strengthens the relationship between UTTC and UND and provides unique opportunities for Indigenous scholars to engage in biomedical research alongside their academic endeavors at their home institution,” said Biggane. “Archana was one of the first faculty I encountered during graduate school at UND, and I am excited to continue learning from her and share her expertise with my students!”

Training undergraduates in cutting edge research techniques to address human health problems in a safe and supportive environment helps them to build confidence and acquire skill sets that enable them to be more competitive in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) job market, said Biggane, whose own research efforts focus on bladder cancer, specifically understanding the role of the SPARC (Secreted Protein Acidic and Rich in Cysteine) gene and its regulation as it relates to disease.

Bladder cancer is caused primarily by tobacco use and exposure to toxic environmental chemicals, including cadmium. The SPARC gene osteonectin, which performs several biological functions, including mineralization of bone and cartilage and cell proliferation, has been reported to be highly expressed in multiple tumor types, including, breast, prostate, pancreatic, and colon cancers.

The current literature does not explain how tumor cells “downregulate” or minimize SPARC expression as they become increasingly malignant, though. To address this gap in knowledge, Biggane and Dhasarathy will use the NIH grant to train student researchers to help them explore the epigenetic mechanisms underlying the down-regulation of SPARC in malignantly transformed urothelial cells to determine the role of tumor- and stromal-derived SPARC in malignant urothelial cells.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for researchers to combine forces and explore the fundamental epigenetic mechanisms behind a serious pathological problem,” added Dhasarathy. “There are about 83,000 new cases of bladder cancer expected to be diagnosed this year alone, and understanding why this happens will be critical in developing treatments. Personally, I am very excited to collaborate with Emily, who is one of the first graduates from UND’s biomedical sciences doctoral program, which was initiated in 2014.”

Currently in its record nineteenth year of funding from the NIH, ND-INBRE was also awarded an additional five years of funding recently, totaling over $18 million for the state and its young researchers over the course of two decades.

“The ND-INBRE team includes important members from the majority of universities and colleges in North Dakota,” said Sens. “The goals of ND-INBRE are focused on our student stakeholders.”

These goals, Sens added, include: providing research opportunities for undergraduate students in order to build a pathway for students to pursue health research careers; enhancing science and technology knowledge in the state’s workforce; and both building and increasing research capacity for faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate and undergraduate students at participating institutions.

Over 20 faculty and staff at UND participate as a team to make the program successful.