Montana State University

MSU receives $5.4 million to enhance biomedical research

September 30, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN – Montana State University has received a new $5.4 million grant to enhance its ability to conduct biomedical research.

The latest COBRE grant from the National Institutes of Health will support faculty members in two MSU colleges who are trying to understand emerging diseases and diseases spread from animals to humans and then develop therapies to fight them, said principal investigator Mark Quinn, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

The grant will also help fund laboratories, cutting-edge equipment and technical support as the researchers in the College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science investigate the fungi, bacteria and viruses that cause those diseases. It will help MSU to continue developing junior-level researchers, in part by pairing them with senior faculty mentors. COBRE refers to Institutional Development Award Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence.

“The COBRE program has made a huge difference in our ability to recruit faculty and be competitive in expanding and developing infrastructure,” Quinn said.

The new five-year COBRE grant will allow the university to build on the accomplishments of two previous COBRE grants, the first awarded in 2004 and the second in 2009, Quinn said. Among other things, those five-year grants helped MSU build the Jutila Research Laboratory, a Biosafety Level 3 facility that’s used to study organisms such as the ones that cause brucellosis and Q-fever. The grants also allowed MSU to hire and support several junior faculty members, many of whom have already received major recognition for their accomplishments.

One of the most recent junior faculty members to be recognized was Blake Wiedenheft in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. He was senior author of a paper that was published this year in Science and partner on a project funded by a 2014 Grand Challenges Exploration Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Science paper explained a significant contribution to the understanding of a new field of DNA research that holds enormous promise for fighting infectious diseases and genetic disorders. The Grand Challenges grant will be used to study how disease-causing microbes interact with the human gastrointestinal tract.

Honors also went to Josh Obar, a junior faculty member in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. He was one of five scientists from around the world who received the Young Investigator Award from the American Society for Microbiology during the 2013 Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. He investigates the secrets behind out-of-control immune systems, flu pandemics and other biomedical issues.

Other junior faculty members hired and supported by COBRE are Matthew Taylor, Robert Cramer, Nicole Meissner, Jovanka Voyich and Ben Lei.

W. Fred Taylor, director of the IDeA program at the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, said COBRE grants are designed to enhance faculty and institutional research capabilities in states that historically have had low levels of NIH funding.

“This new phase of funding will enable Montana State to build on the substantial progress it has made in these areas and to continue its leading role in studying infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans,” Taylor said.

Allen Harmsen, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and principal investigator on many successful NIH-funded research grants, praised COBRE, saying, “It’s a very nice system. It works very well.”

COBRE allows MSU to develop its research capacity within a research focus, whether it involves diseases transmitted between animals and humans (zoonotic diseases) or rural inequities in healthcare, Harmsen said. Part of its beauty is that it helps junior faculty members develop and succeed in their careers.

Quinn said the new COBRE grant is the final grant in a series, but it wasn’t awarded automatically. MSU’s proposal had to go through a competitive process to be approved. He added that when the latest COBRE grant ends in 2019, MSU will continue building on its biomedical accomplishments.

“We have a plan in place for sustainability,” he said. “We have an external advisory committee of well-known researchers who help advise the program to make sure it’s successful and provide input as we move forward.”

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu