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A Larger Piece of the Pie

By Brenda Haugen

Photo of Don Sens

Don Sens, PhD, INBRE principal investigator and a professor in the Department of Pathology.

North Dakota is one of more than 20 U.S. states and territories that, when combined, get less than 5 percent of the National Institutes of Health's budget for research, according to Donald Sens, PhD, a professor in the Pathology Department at The University of North Dakota (UND) School of Medicine and Health Sciences. To help rectify this disparity, friendly rivals—UND and North Dakota State University (NDSU)—banded together with other educational institutions in the state to help garner a bigger piece of the research "pie."

Their efforts resulted in the founding of the North Dakota Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network (BRIN) in 2001. According to Sens, BRIN was very small when it started. Its main goals were to help recruit faculty and make improvements to the library.

But through the years, the program has changed and grown considerably. In 2004, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) re-implemented the project as the North Dakota IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence, or INBRE. Sens runs the program at UND, and Donald Schwert, PhD, a distinguished professor of geology and director of the Center for Science and Mathematics at NDSU, serves as the program coordinator there.

"The BRIN and INBRE programs represent the most significant continuing research collaboration between UND and NDSU," Schwert said.

"These programs have demonstrated that scientific collaborations can thrive, even during times of inter-campus rivalries. Statewide, these programs have established important means of scientific training opportunities for both faculty and students. For the four-year and tribal colleges, they have created campus cultures receptive to research as being integral to the scientific training of undergraduates. For all campuses, the BRIN and INBRE programs have helped fund research infrastructure that would not have been otherwise possible with normal state appropriations. Moreover, these projects have created a statewide network of scientific communication, cooperation, and collaboration among the member institutions of the network."

Photo of Donald Schwert

Donald Schwert, PhD, Director, Center for Science and Mathematics, North Dakota State University

Working Toward Common Goals

According to Sens, among INBRE's main goals is to engage primary undergraduate universities in the state—such as Mayville, Minot, Valley City, and Dickinson—and get their faculty interested in undergraduate research so all North Dakota undergraduates are able to have a research experience. INBRE also includes another initiative that involves tribal colleges with the same goal in mind.

"Our INBRE has actually got to the point now that we have full-blown research programs at both Little Hoop and Turtle Mountain," Sens said. "So we're one of the few that have been able to really go out to the two-year tribal colleges and get real good research programs going."

Another main goal for INBRE is to build infrastructure at research-intensive universities, such as UND and NDSU. This involves providing support for core facilities, which usually include high-priced instrumentation and techniques. Among these core facilities is a proteomics lab, where researchers can look at all the proteins in a tissue.

"It's very complex, and it's very expensive," Sens said. "The service contract for our instruments is $60,000 to $70,000 a year just to make sure that they're going to stay running."

Because of the expense, these core facilities would be out of the reach of most in the state were it not for INBRE.

"We provide proteomics to anybody in the state-supported system or the tribal colleges that need it," Sens explained. "We do the same thing down at NDSU. Down there we have what we call the metal analysis core. That's another core facility we keep running."

The metal analysis core allows researchers to measure metals precisely. These include metals bodies need to stay healthy, such as calcium and magnesium, and contaminants that can cause problems, such as cadmium, mercury, and lead.

"In the INBRE-II (2009 grant), the research focus among most investigators will be on heavy metals and health," Schwert said. "This is an easy focus for undergraduate-centered research, but it is also an important focus for North Dakota statewide. A heavy metal problem is intrinsic to soils in much of the state. Studying how or if these metals accumulate in plant and animal tissues will provide important data for health studies."

According to Sens, anyone in INBRE can access these core facilities, but they also are available to those outside the network as well. Investigators at the universities have found it useful, as have local business people, such as those involved in the potato-growing industry.

"It's very open to everybody," Sens said.

Taking the Initiative

A new initiative this year is bioinformatics. According to Sens, now that scientists have discovered how to sequence the human genome, researchers are getting data sets that are so huge they can't look at them and analyze them.

"What these people are able to do is take huge, huge sets of data and start making sense of it," Sens said of bioinformatics. "So if we sequence DNA from hundreds of people, they can find the one gene that's variable. It's a very specialized area."

Bioinformatics also delves into other areas of value to North Dakota in particular. For instance, through bioinformatics, researchers can try to figure out what type of medical record would work best in a rural state such as North Dakota where a doctor may need information on a patient who's 100 miles away.

"That's medical informatics," Sens said. "And that's one of our new initiatives. We're just really getting that going."

That's possible thanks to a $15.9 million grant, payable over five years, which INBRE received from the NIH this year. The grant—the largest in the history of UND's medical school—helped bring a full-time professional in this field to UND November 1. A second full-time faculty member will arrive at NDSU soon, Sens said.

"The grant actually put a person at both schools, and we'll continue to build on that over the five years," he explained.

According to Schwert, in the original 2004 INBRE grant, bioinformatics was limited in scope to support for a Computational Chemistry and Biology Network hosted both at NDSU and UND and for e-journal and database support for both The UND and NDSU libraries.

"While these were important services to both campuses, they really did not satisfy the larger need for graduate-level program development in bioinformatics at both campuses," he said.

With the 2009 INBRE grant, both the UND and NDSU campuses have support to each establish bioinformatics cores, Schwert explained.

"At NDSU, for example, the funding is sufficient for us to help support two new faculty lines in bioinformatics—one line in full; another line in part, with NDSU matching support making up the difference," he said. "The expectations on both campuses are for enhanced graduate program development in bioinformatics as a consequence of INBRE-II support."

More to Smile About

While that's enough cause for excitement, Sens said he had even more good news, thanks to the support he received from Interim Vice President for Health Affairs and Interim Dean Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH, of The UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

"The thing that I'm really, really happy with is that when this grant was really written, there was no provision in the grant for undergraduate research at UND. It was put out into the primary undergraduate schools. Joshua Wynne, who's the dean here, actually about a year ago, gave me funding to start an undergraduate research program at UND," Sens said. "Then with the stimulus that came out from the government, we were able to get supplements to both the INBRE grant and one of my other grants … to bring more undergraduates in."

"This summer at UND we had about 40 undergraduates doing about 10 weeks of full-time research with us. It was just a great program, and we really had fun with it."

Because the government stimulus money is for two years, UND will be able to continue the program next summer. Sens said he hopes to find a way to continue the program beyond that.

"So now I have undergraduate research at all of my primary undergraduate schools," he said with a smile. "I have it at two of my tribal colleges. Now I have it also at UND."

This article originally appeared on the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences website.

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