Montana State University

Montana INBRE program receives five-year, $17.5 million grant

July 1, 2009 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service


Researcher Emily Morrison (left) and biology professor Michael Morrow watch as premed student Katie Rompala loads a DNA gel at Morrow's lab at the University of Montana Western, which is part of the INBRE network. (MSU photo by Steven Hunts)   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- The National Institutes of Health has awarded a five-year, $17.5 million grant to the Montana INBRE program to improve the state's capacity for biomedical research and train new scientists in that field.

Montana INBRE is a network of biomedical researchers at universities, four-year colleges and tribal colleges across the state, led by Montana State University. INBRE-focuses on understanding infectious diseases of concern to Montanans, such as West Nile and hantavirus.

"The network is thriving. Over the past nine years, it's been growing, and we're seeing increased numbers of young investigators," said Ann Bertagnolli, associate program director at INBRE. "It has brought people together for the first time and allowed collaborations to develop."

INBRE's other focuses include environmental health and health inequality issues, as well as drawing more students into biomedical fields, Bertagnolli said.

During the past five years, INBRE has introduced biomedical research opportunities to around 675 undergraduate and graduate students and more than 2,000 elementary and high school students across Montana.

Biomedical research is important because it helps increase scientific knowledge on health-related topics, said Adele Pittendrigh, associate dean of MSU's College of Letters and Science and program coordinator for the NIH grant.

Discoveries made through biomedical research can lead to new or improved treatments, tests, vaccines and healthcare equipment, Pittendrigh said.

The NIH grant, awarded in May, is the second five-year grant awarded to Montana INBRE. The first grant, in the amount of $17 million, allowed INBRE to fund 10 projects across Montana. Each year, about $500,000 from INBRE has paid for equipment and facilities that improve research opportunities for students across the state. The new grant will fund at least 27 projects, Bertagnolli said.

In addition to the grant money, INBRE-supported projects bring extra federal grants to Montana. In 2007-08 alone, INBRE projects won $15 million in federal grants. Of that money, about $1.5 million went to researchers at smaller institutions who had little or no previous grant experience, Bertagnolli said.

Helping to establish and bolster research at smaller institutions -- thereby giving students a chance to get interested in it -- is one of INBRE's chief goals, said Allen Harmsen, principal investigator of the NIH grant and a professor of veterinary molecular biology at MSU.

"One of the things I think we've accomplished so far is that, in some of these undergraduate institutions, we've helped develop a research culture that really didn't exist before," he said. "So it really allows those students to get that experience and to learn what research is about and to get excited about that."

INBRE's network allows scientists at four-year institutions to share their work with other researchers, and it allows larger institutions to share resources and equipment.

That experience introduces students to careers in science and produces a "research pipeline" that guides Montana students from their undergraduate years through graduate school and beyond, Harmsen said.

The hope is that those Montana students, with the help of INBRE, will eventually find solutions to Montana health problems, Harmsen said.

Montana INBRE has also pushed to expand research at the state's seven tribal colleges, said Sara Young, who heads INBRE's community-based research and health disparities programs.

For nine years, INBRE has been one of several programs helping Montana's tribal colleges expand their science offerings, Young said. The hope is to give students at tribal colleges an introductory science learning experience on par with one they'd get at a four-year college or university, she said.

So far, INBRE money has provided equipment and additional science faculty at tribal colleges, Young said. In the next five years, the goal is to help tribal colleges develop their own on-site research projects to address issues specific to their communities.

That tie with the community and with Montana issues underlies everything Montana INBRE does, Bertagnolli said.

"The program really opens up the door for developing research and looking at issues that affect the state as a whole," she said. "It's not just about research for the sake of research. It's about addressing areas of serious concern for Montana."

Montana INBRE is part of the NIH's Institutional Development Award Program. The federal program operates in 23 states and Puerto Rico. From 2001 to 2004, Montana INBRE was called the Montana Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network, or BRIN.

Montana INBRE includes MSU, the University of Montana, six four-year colleges and seven tribal colleges around the state.

Related Stories

"Drinking water study unites MSU, Little Big Horn College," June 7, 2006 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=3790

"Montana universities, colleges to share $16.6 million grant for biomedical research," Sept. 15, 2004 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=1901

Contact: Valerie Holznagel, INBRE communications specialist, at 406-994-3360 or vholznagel@montana.edu