UNMC News

UNMC launches research program in free radical biology

Will explore variety of conditions including diabetes, cancer and arthritis

Will bring together scientists from across campus, university

Matt Zimmerman, Ph.D., assistant professor in cellular and integrative physiology, was recently named director of the newly created Free Radicals in Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

"There are only a handful of premier free radical research programs in the country," Dr. Zimmerman said. "My goal is to help develop such a program here at UNMC."

In March, he held a retreat at the University of Nebraska at Omaha bringing together investigators involved in free radical research at UNMC as well as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The retreat was attended by 25 scientists with expertise in at least 10 different disciplines, including gastroenterology, neuroscience, pharmacology, surgery, pharmacy, biochemistry, pulmonary medicine, radiology, and diabetes, endocrinology and metabolism.

A UNMC legend - Denham Harman, M.D., Ph.D. - is known as the Father of the Free Radical Theory on Aging. Dr. Harman, who is now 96, served on the UNMC faculty from 1958 until 2010 and was nominated six times for the Nobel Prize.

He theorized that free radicals - highly reactive molecules produced during normal cellular processes - cause aging and disease through their destructive actions in cells and tissues. He further added to the theory by conducting pioneering research on the role of antioxidants - vitamins C, E and beta-Carotene - and how they can reduce the cancer-causing and atherosclerosis-causing effects of free radicals.

"We're here on Dr. Harman's shoulders," Dr. Zimmerman said. "Dr. Harman was focused on aging. We want to take it to the next level and focus on a variety of diseases associated with aging."

These conditions include hypertension, heart failure, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, infection and inflammation, respiratory and lung disease, vascular disease, liver disease and neurodegeneration.

"Free radicals and other oxidation products continue to emerge as a common contributor to diseases," said Jennifer Larsen, M.D., vice chancellor for research. "Expanding our free radicals research program will benefit a number of investigators across colleges, research programs, and even across the university as a whole."

Dr. Larsen's office is funding three $25,000 pilot projects in free radical research. The Request for Applications for these pilot projects can be found at http://www.unmc.edu/research_fundingopportunities.htm. Dr. Zimmerman said the winning projects will be selected by July 1.

"The pilot projects should get things rolling," he said. "They should generate some publications and result in more collaboration among our researchers, which we hope will lead to the development of new multi-investigator grants."

Starting in the fall 2012 semester, Dr. Zimmerman plans to begin a monthly free radicals in medicine seminar series featuring presentations by outside scientists as well as university researchers.

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