UNMC researchers get almost $6 million in VA grants

by Lisa Spellman and Tom O'Connor, UNMC public affairs | April 13, 2007

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Robert Bennett, Ph.D., Kusum Kharbanda, Ph.D., Deb Romberger, M.D., Carol Casey, Ph.D., and Fred Hamel, Ph.D., all recently secured grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that combined to total almost $6 million in research funding.
As any researcher knows, it's all about getting grant funding.

Six investigators at UNMC hit the jackpot recently when they each independently applied for Merit Review grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

A combined total of $5.9 million in grants over the next four years will go to the VA affiliated researchers.

"We're very excited about this because in the last few funding cycles, we've only had two or three grants funded out of a similar number submitted," said Debra Romberger, M.D., professor in the pulmonary, critical care, sleep & allergy section at UNMC and associate chief of staff, research and development at the Omaha Division of the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System.

A Merit Review grant is similar in scope to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) RO1 grant in terms of what is proposed and the number of years funded, Dr. Romberger said.

Only 20 percent of such applications are funded on a yearly basis by the VA. Dr. Romberger said the VA funds research because it wants to attract academic affiliated persons, especially clinicians, to work at the VA and promote research that is relevant to their patient population.

"For our investigators, these grants mean the same thing that NIH grants mean -- dollars to conduct research they are passionate about," Dr. Romberger said.

The following is a listing of the grant recipients and an abstract of their work:

The Role of Relaxin Hormones in Scarring of the Liver

  • Principal investigator: Robert Bennett, Ph.D., assistant professor, UNMC departments of internal medicine and pharmacology
  • Funding source: Veterans Administration Merit Review
  • Award: $749,900

The objective of this proposal is to determine how the relaxin family of hormones contributes to the origin and treatment of fibrosis, or scarring, in the liver. Since the major causes of cirrhosis (hepatitis C virus and alcohol abuse) are significantly more prevalent in veterans than in the general population, the research proposed in this application may lead to targeted therapeutic strategies for the treatment of liver disease in the veteran population.

Altered Receptor-Mediated Endocytosis: Its role in Alcoholic Apoptosis

  • Principal investigator: Carol Casey, Ph.D., professor, UNMC College of Medicine.
  • Funding source: Veterans Administration Merit Review
  • Award: $533,000

The overall goal of this project is to show how inadequate removal of apoptotic cells (cells which are undergoing programmed cell death) can play a role in the origin of alcoholic liver injury. Elucidation of the effect of alcohol on clearance mechanisms of apoptotic cells will provide a better understanding of alcohol-induced liver damage and promote the development of new strategies to prevent and treat liver injury in veterans.

Insulin-degrading Enzyme and Insulin Resistance

  • Principal investigator: Frederick Hamel, Ph.D., professor, section of diabetes, endocrinology and metabolism, UNMC Department of Internal Medicine
  • Funding source: Veterans Administration Merit Review
  • Award: $1,076,000

The hypothesis is that inhibition of insulin-degrading enzyme (IDE) decreases the cell's full response to insulin and thereby contributes to insulin resistance. The proposal specifically examines the inhibition of IDE by nitric oxide and its effects on insulin action. The potential impact on veteran health care is that understanding the mechanisms that control the activity of IDE will allow for the design of treatments to increase its activity and help treat type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, two diseases with increasing prevalence in veterans.

Alcoholic Liver Injury: Treatment by Betaine

  • Principal investigator: Kusum Kharbanda, Ph.D., assistant professor, UNMC Department of Internal Medicine
  • Funding source: Veterans Administration Merit Review
  • Award: $1,033,900

The long term objectives of this proposal are to define how cell alterations and reactions contribute to the origin of fatty degeneration and other problems in alcohol-induced livers. The study will determine if betaine, a nutrient that plays an important role in the health of the cardiovascular system, may also help protect against fatty deposits in the liver and in correcting these cell alterations.

Relationship to Environmental Exposure and Innate Immunity to COPD

  • Principal investigator: Debra Romberger, M.D., professor, pulmonary, critical care, sleep & allergy section, UNMC Internal Medicine Department, and associate chief of staff, research and development at the Omaha Veterans Administration Medical Center.
  • Funding source: Veterans Administration Merit Review
  • Award: $600,000

The grant will investigate the hypothesis that genetic variation in genes regulating the processing of endotoxin (a natural compound found inside bacteria) is associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in veterans. It is anticipated that this work will improve understanding of the role of agricultural work exposure in the development of airflow obstruction and contribute to more specific prevention and therapeutic strategies relevant to COPD in this particular veteran population.

A Controlled Study Using Methylphenidate for Apathy in Alzheimer's Dementia

  • Principal investigator: Prasad Padala, M.D., assistant professor, UNMC Department of Psychiatry.
  • Funding source: Veterans Administration Merit Review Entry Program grant
  • Award: $148,600

Apathy is one of the earliest and most profound disturbances that occur in Alzheimer's dementia. This proposal is a double blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial using the drug, methylphenidate, for treatment of apathy in Alzheimer's dementia. Methylphenidate is a prescribed stimulant frequently used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adults. Nearly 1.4 million veterans suffer from apathy in association with Alzheimer's dementia and treatment of apathy is absolutely critical to allow veterans to maximize their functional status, social engagement and quality of life, and thus delay placement in assisted living or nursing home settings.