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Home > ARRA Stories > Recovery Act Funds Fuel Innovative Research Collaborations
Recovery Act Funds Fuel Innovative Research Collaborations

To succeed in today's global scientific environment, researchers must integrate similar goals, connect across vast distances, and share valuable knowledge and resources. To help facilitate these collaborations, NCRR funds innovative projects through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). From 3-D patient simulations and real-time data tracking to multidisciplinary partnerships, these two-year projects help researchers connect with each other, create and retain jobs, and translate breakthroughs in science and technology into improved patient care.

Mobilizing Social Networks

Social networks defy geographic barriers to instantly connect people around the world. Now, a group of scientists is harnessing the power of the Internet to speed collaboration in research and to share critical resources.

More than $12 million in ARRA funding from NCRR will enable a team led by Michael Conlon at the University of Florida to build a national Web-based network connecting scientists, researchers and other experts. With expertise from seven institutions, the team plans to build upon a network called VIVO to allow scientists to share research, expertise and resources in ways not possible before.

According to Conlon, this project will create about 30 to 45 new jobs — from administrative positions to those in information technology, library science and information science.

Originally developed by Cornell University, VIVO's semantic Web technology differs from that of an ordinary social networking site. The software interprets large amounts of information, such as data from research projects, and then assembles and displays that information so that scientists can easily find what they need, said Conlon.

"We want this to be a user-based system — updated, maintained and ultimately transformed to meet the needs of each institution as well as individual users," he added.

Each project partner plays an integral role in the collaboration. For example, Cornell University develops the core software, Indiana University Bloomington is improving VIVO's semantic Web technology to enhance social networking and the University of Florida will facilitate VIVO's interfaces to other systems. Washington University in St. Louis will evaluate the project, and The Scripps Research Institute, Ponce School of Medicine and Weill Cornell Medical College will put VIVO into action as a free resource for the nonprofit research community.

"This system has the potential to grow exponentially," said Conlon. "We expect to enable collaborations between researchers around the world."

Creating Real-Time Data Solutions

Networking is essential for scientists and clinicians working in rural areas that lack the resources needed to conduct cutting-edge research. To help meet this need, a new collaborative project promises to give rural doctors and patients better access to critical public health tools and knowledge in the fight against infectious diseases.

With a $1 million ARRA grant supplement, Carolyn Hovde Bohach, principal investigator for the University of Idaho's NCRR-funded IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), is leading an effort to create a real-time, Web-based system for tracking infectious disease. Established in 2001 to expand opportunities for students and staff in biomedical research, the University of Idaho INBRE will interact with existing electronic medical records programs, monitor and track the spread of disease, and disseminate data to health care providers and the public.

Existing medical centers and outreach clinics will form the backbone of the tracking system. Along with collecting data from private providers, the system will tap Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals and veterinary clinics. "Working with veterinary clinics is a great opportunity to get real-time data on specific infectious diseases," Hovde Bohach explained. "Because they often see an outbreak of disease in animals before it reaches humans, their information can be used to warn people."

Typically, epidemiologists cannot gauge an outbreak's level of resistance to antibiotics until several months have passed. Idaho's new system aims to shorten this time by making data available immediately.

Idaho's partner in the project is the University of Washington's Institute of Translational Health Sciences (ITHS), funded by NCRR's Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) program. ITHS will use its expertise in community engagement to inform the public about disease risks and to distribute health information to doctors.

ITHS will train doctors at Boise VA Medical Center to apply and use the new system, develop the database, create community partnerships, and share scientific data with the public. The center will use ARRA funds to cover partial salaries of two doctors, a program manager and a computer administrator, who will apply their knowledge to improving health outcomes in the underserved areas of rural Idaho.

Visualizing Success

Just across Idaho's southern state line in Utah, researchers are developing another database of critical information for patient care as well as innovative imaging and computing tools that could lead to effective interventions for patients with heart disease or epilepsy.

Imagine seeing exactly how your heart would respond to surgery before the doctor makes the first cut. That's what researchers are working toward at the NCRR-supported Center for Integrative Biomedical Computing (CIBC), housed at the University of Utah. Through a $1.3 million ARRA supplement, the project will enable doctors to improve treatments using patient-specific models and to accelerate future diagnoses using an archive of patient data.

Chris Johnson, CIBC director and the project's principal investigator, is collaborating with Numira Biosciences to focus grant funds on three specific elements of CIBC's work. A database will incorporate the first two areas — shape analysis and data provenance — to link similar sets of structural information and maintain the history of changes made to the data. Using this archive, imaging and diagnosis performed on one patient could accelerate the treatment of another patient.

The third component of the project, BioMesh3D, takes structural information from medical images and pairs it with a patient's physical properties to model how factors such as stress affect blood flow and other processes that are unique to an individual.

The collaborators need new staff with expertise in developing this software. "At CIBC, we already have hired one graduate student and a part-time software developer," said Johnson. Funding also will pay partial salaries for two existing faculty members.

Johnson's aim is for researchers worldwide to use this technology to accelerate the pace of biomedical computing. Thus, CIBC's software is open source and free to the biomedical community. Children's Hospital Boston already is translating this work into practice. In collaboration with CIBC, pediatric cardiologists are creating patient-specific heart simulations that will help surgeons implant cardiac defibrillators in their patients.

Heart Model

Researchers at the NCRR-supported Center for Integrative Biomedical Computing in Utah are working to create a computer heart model to help doctors optimize the placement of implantable cardiac defibrillators before surgery. Photo courtesy of the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute, University of Utah.

CIBC's work with the hospital also includes modeling for seizure patients. "We are creating computer models from patient images and then performing simulations to pinpoint where seizures originate in the brain," Johnson said. "This will allow surgeons to target specific brain areas and could translate into early and effective seizure relief interventions."

Translating Research into Knowledge

Translational work with brain imaging also plays a pivotal role in a new collaborative project examining the potential link between type 2 diabetes and dementia. A multi-center research group will use a $1.8 million ARRA administrative supplement from NCRR to examine in rhesus monkeys whether the early signs of diabetes — problems regulating insulin and glucose — are predictors of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.

The Harvard team includes experts from the New England Primate Research Center (NEPRC), part of the NCRR National Primate Research Center program; its medical school; the CTSA-supported Harvard Catalyst | The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center; and its cores at the Joslin Diabetes Center, McLean Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Researchers will evaluate the monkeys for metabolic risk factors and decline in brain function. By monitoring them in a controlled environment, the team can pay particular attention to diet — something not possible when studying humans. "We hope that our initial work will guide research to design treatments for human patients," said James Rowlett, project director and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. "It's a true bench-to-bedside-and-back approach."

To achieve that goal, the Joslin Diabetes Center will provide clinical expertise for NEPRC's study of the monkeys' metabolism and brain function. The McLean Hospital Imaging Center will perform magnetic resonance imaging on the animals using a scanner that produces high-resolution images of specific brain regions.

Massachusetts General Hospital will store tissue samples from the primates and make them available to scientists worldwide. So far, the project has created jobs at two sites, said NEPRC director Ronald Desrosiers. Three research assistants will work in a new laboratory for cognitive neuroscience at the primate center, and an imaging data specialist will provide expertise at the diabetes center.

"The exceptional expertise provided by each of these centers makes this project unique," Desrosiers said. "We could not do this work in a single laboratory."

Whether it's networking across the country or across disciplines, the researchers highlighted here recognize the need for collaboration to enable discoveries that can improve the lives of patients everywhere.

This article originally appeared on the NCRR Reporter website.

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