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Simmons Foundation awards collaborative research grants


Biomarkers and brain tumors are the focus of new research funded in the third annual round of grants by the Virginia and L.E. Simmons Family Foundation Collaborative Research Fund.

medicine bottlesThe $3 million, five-year initiative to discover new ways to diagnose and treat diseases supports collaboration among researchers at Rice University, Texas Children’s Hospital and The Methodist Hospital Research Institute (TMHRI).

Two projects chosen from 29 proposals involving scientists at the three institutions have been awarded one-year seed grants of $170,000, while four others earned $55,000 grants. Successful initial findings will ideally lead the researchers to pursue further funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.

The fund was formed to promote novel solutions to difficult medical problems through the combined expertise of Texas Medical Center scientists, engineers and physicians who might not otherwise collaborate.

“The proposals we received this year truly fulfilled the intent of the Simmons Foundation awards,” said James Coleman, Rice's vice provost for research and a member of the selection committee. “Researchers are developing tremendous collaborations across the Texas Medical Center, and we only wish we could fund more of their initiatives.”

Targeting degenerative disease

One winning team will study spinocerebellar ataxia, a genetic disease that causes a progressive loss of coordination, imbalance, and difficulty swallowing and speaking and eventually leads to death. The researchers will study small molecules to identify biomarkers that can help lead to early diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

They hope to find a way to successfully reverse the disorder without gene therapy.

Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, a child neurologist in the Division of Child Neurology at Texas Children's Hospital, is leading the effort, with collaboration from Marina Vannucci, a Rice professor of statistics; and Juan Botas, a Texas Children's Hospital researcher and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM).

Battling medulloblastomas

A team led by Chris Tsz-Kwong Man, a researcher at Texas Children's Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at BCM, hopes to transform the treatment of medulloblastomas, the most common type of brain cancer in children and one that also affects adults.

The researchers will leverage the massive amount of data on childhood medulloblastomas generated by Man's lab at Texas Children's to characterize the four known subtypes of the disease and create novel therapies for children and adult patients.

Collaborators include Stephen Wong, director of the Center for Bioengineering and Informatics at TMHRI; Ching Lau, clinical director of the Texas Children's Cancer Center (TCCC) Brain Tumor Program; Rudy Guerra, a Rice professor of statistics; Pamela New, a neuro-oncologist at TMHRI; Suzanne Powell, chief of neuropathology at TMHRI; and Robert Grossman, director of the Methodist Neurological Institute and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at The Methodist Hospital.

Awards of $55,000 were granted to the following projects:

New pediatric cancer strategies

An effort led by Jason Shohet, research co-chair of the neuroblastoma program at TCCC, will develop novel therapies to treat high-risk neuroblastoma, which accounts for almost 15 percent of all pediatric cancer deaths.

Texas Children's was the first laboratory to identify and isolate cells in primary neuroblastoma tumors that act very much like cancer stem cells. This achievement “provides the unique opportunity to study these cells and design therapies to specifically target them, which we believe will help cure many more children,” the researchers wrote.

Collaborators are Xiaobo Zhou, an associate member of the Bioengineering and Bioinformatics Program at TMHRI, and Preethi Gunaratne of the University of Houston and BCM.

Stem cells from amniotic fluid

Another team will test the hypothesis that stem cells can be generated from human amniotic fluid, thus bypassing the legal, ethical and practical limitations of harvesting stem cells from embryos or inducing them from other types of adult cells.

The team led by Aleksandar Babic, an instructor and associate medical director of transfusion medicine at TMHRI, and Malcolm Brenner, director of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, has found that such stem cell lines can be produced with amniotic fluids from mice. The researchers believe human amniotic fluid, which is collected during routine procedures and usually discarded, contains precursor cells that can generate stem cell lines with the potential to generate blood cells.

Collaborators include Kenneth Moise, medical director, Program for Multiples, Texas Children’s Fetal Center, and Eric Yvon, a hematology/oncology researcher, also at Texas Children's Hospital.

Aging at the cellular level

Ailments associated with aging are the target of a study by Janet Braam, a Rice professor of biochemistry and cell biology; Olivier Lichtarge, a researcher at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital; and Cindy Farach-Carson, Rice's associate vice provost for research, professor of biochemistry and cell biology and scientific director of Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative.

They will focus on autophagy regulation, the process by which cells recycle damaged components. When the process breaks down, the normal byproducts of cell function accumulate and clog the cell's machinery, perhaps becoming toxic. They hope to control the protein interactions that regulate autophagy, a technique that could lead to even more novel avenues for drug design.

Nanoparticles join fight against lymphoma

Youli Zu, associate director of the hematopathology section at TMHRI, and Michael Wong, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice, are developing a unique, nanoparticle-based therapy for the treatment of anaplastic large-cell lymphoma (ALCL). They hope to lessen or even eliminate the need for standard chemotherapy by addressing a cell-surface protein unique to ALCL and an abnormal protein, anaplastic lymphoma kinase, to selectively block the growth of tumors with few or no side effects.

The Simmons family

L.E. Simmons is president and founder of SCF Partners, an investment firm that provides management expertise to energy service companies. He is a trustee of Rice and Texas Children’s Hospital and a board member of TMHRI.

Virginia Simmons is vice president of the Simmons Family Foundation, which supports religious, art and cultural organizations, education, and youth and medical associations.

For information on the Virginia and L.E. Simmons Family Foundation Collaborative Research Fund, visit www.collaborativeresearchfund.org.

—Mike Williams, Rice Public Affairs