University to invest $45M in biological sciences research

Sunday, November 4, 2018 - 3:40pm

The University of Michigan Biosciences Initiative announced the first round of research projects to receive a combined total of $45 million in grants last Monday. Out of 28 proposals submitted to the Biosciences Initiative, nine projects were chosen to receive research grants.

The Biosciences Initiative launched in 2015 when University President Mark Schlissel’s Advisory Panel on the Biosciences advocated for an increased effort to make the University the leading institution in biological science studies and research. A multidisciplinary faculty was assembled to determine a plan for accomplishing this goal.  

“We established the Biosciences Initiative to propel the University of Michigan to the forefront in critical areas of life science research,” Schlissel said in a statement. “I am thrilled that our faculty have responded with groundbreaking proposals.”

Among those chosen for the first round of investment were five “large” projects, which included establishing a Michigan Concussion Center and an Institute for Global Change Biology, as well as expanding Medicinal Chemistry professor David Sherman’s program to discover natural products for drug development. The investment awarded grants of $100,000 to four smaller projects.

Roger Cone, vice provost and director of the Biosciences Initiative, said the application process was posted on the Bioscience Initiative’s website and after initial applications were received, nine were asked to submit full proposals. Each project was independently reviewed by three teams and recommendations were sent to Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert.

“These data points were used to rank the applications, and 5 of the final 9 were recommended to Pres. Schlissel and Provost Philbert,” Cone wrote in an email interview. “They chose to fund these five programs.”

Kinesiology associate professor Steven Broglio is a leading researcher in concussion studies nationwide. A portion of the Biosciences Initiative investment will go toward helping Broglio and fellow researchers create a new center to study concussions and their impacts on the human body.

Broglio explained the grant will be used to finance a new Michigan Concussion Center by recruiting faculty so the center can conduct life-saving research in the prevention and treatment of concussions.

“We are focused on becoming international leaders in concussion research, care and education by unifying diverse faculty from across the University in support of our mission,” Broglio said.

Broglio said interest in concussion research has risen significantly in past years due to increased awareness of the injury’s prevalence, especially in athletics.

“There has been a growing interest in concussions over the previous decade and we are honored to have the support and backing of the University to advance our research, clinical care and outreach in a truly impactful way,” Broglio said.

Sherman, whose project was chosen for funding, leads a team of researchers who are dedicated to studying microorganism structures in order to manufacture new antibiotics and medicines. Sherman’s team focuses on discovering natural products, like various microbial strains, to create new pharmaceuticals. 

“Natural products discovery involves screening extracts from a large library of marine sediment and soil-borne ‘good’ bacteria to find new pharmaceuticals,” Sherman said. “Many important clinically approved agents have come from these sources, and my research group at U-M has developed a one-of-a-kind library that we will share with the U-M biomedical research community interested in developing new drugs against cancer, infectious disease, Alzheimer’s and many others.”

Sherman explained the funding will go directly toward setting up a Natural Product Discovery Core laboratory and hiring three new faculty members for the lab. With these new additions, Sherman said the team will be better equipped to continue their research and produce more life-saving antibiotics.

“Our goals are to employ state-of-the-art technologies in genomics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and synthetic biology to speed the discovery of new drug molecules to safely and effectively treat human diseases,” Sherman said.

Sherman said while research has vastly improved in terms of understanding and treating diseases, many diseases, like Alzheimer’s, remain without a cure, and treatment is continually threatened by antibiotic resistance.

“Natural products have been a proven source of many of the world's most effective drugs, and new technologies are enabling the discovery process to be cheaper, and faster,” Sherman said. “U of M will be positioned as a global leader in the effort to discover new medicines due to Biosciences Initiative resources committed to natural product drug discovery.”

Cone said the Biosciences Initiative, just like other presidential proposals, are aimed at addressing relevant social issues. He hopes the initiative at the University can help researchers make new discoveries and contribute to global discussions of life science fields.

“The biosciences is just one of several presidential initiatives, including Poverty Solutions; Precision Health; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; and sustainability,” Cone said. “All these seek to address major societal problems. The biosciences initiative will advance the ability of U of M to address many of these problems based in the biological sciences.”

LSA sophomore Eric Hsieh, a research assistant in a neurosurgery laboratory, hopes to continue his research in graduate school. He said the University’s commitment to the life sciences, through programs like the Biosciences Initiative, reinforce his desire to study here.

“U of M investing definitely is an important decision and I’d love to go to grad school here,” Hsieh said. “I know how abundant the resources are and I can see how U of M is making good progress.”

Hsieh believes research in the biosciences can have the potential to save lives and improve the quality of life for everyone, and said the Biosciences Initiative reflects the University’s understanding of the significance of this field of study.

“People die of disease every day,” Hsieh said. “Research is important because it helps us as scientists and humans know the world and ourselves a little better.”