Jyotika Sharma wins fifth major award in seven years from National Institutes of Health

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded Jyotika Sharma, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), a major grant known as an R21. The two-year grant, worth nearly $400,000, is the fifth such award Sharma has won from the NIH since 2011.

According to Sharma, the long-term goal of her project, titled “Efferocytosis and neutrophil homeostasis in pneumonic sepsis,” is to understand the molecular processes that regulate inflammation associated with sepsis—a systemic, life-threatening condition where the immune system’s response to infection or injury damages a body’s own organs.

Upon infection, specialized white blood cells called neutrophils swarm the site of infection and engulf the virus or bacteria causing the infection. After the infection has been eliminated, these cells die and are cleared out of the body as well, if normal body function is to resume. This “clearing” is achieved by a process called efferocytosis, which prevents tissue damage and promotes tissue repair.

A defective efferocytosis process has been associated with several acute and chronic inflammatory lung diseases, such as sepsis and pneumonia, and is characterized by a condition called neutrophilia (the excessive accumulation of neutrophils). How efferocytosis mediates inflammation and controls neutrophilia at the site of an infection in conditions such as pneumonic sepsis is completely unexplored. Understanding the mechanism of neutrophil efferocytosis is the central goal of Sharma’s latest project.

“We expect that this project will identify a novel function of a specific host factor in mediating efferocytosis, which stops inflammation by clearing out dead and dying cells and can contribute to tissue repair,” Sharma explains. “These studies will guide the development of effective therapeutics not only for a wide array of inflammatory diseases, but also to treat stubborn microbes without introducing the threat of drug resistance.”

In addition to this grant, Sharma’s research is currently supported by an R01, another R21, and a local grant totaling nearly $2.3 million. She is also a principal investigator (PI) of a multi-PI Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (CoBRE) grant worth more than $10 million awarded by the NIH in May 2016 to study host-pathogen interaction for finding new strategies to treat infectious diseases.

While falling under the umbrella of biomedical science, Sharma’s research is one of many projects ongoing at the SMHS known as clinical and translational research: research that “translates” discoveries made at the laboratory bench for clinical implementation to benefit patients directly. For her studies, Sharma is collaborating with clinicians locally at Altru Health System as well as nationally at the NIH.