Medical Center Researchers Receive Second Set of Johnson & Johnson Grants

Grants to Fund Work on Hepatitis C, the Immune System and Genetic Analysis

August 21, 2006

Three researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center have been chosen to receive research awards from Johnson & Johnson based on the potential of their work to lead to medical breakthroughs. The awards, announced today, represent the second round from the “Discovery Concept Fund,” an academic-industry partnership launched in 2005. The fund is designed to nurture early-stage research by scientists who have promising ideas, but not ready access to research funding for a given project. Combined with the first round of awards given out in January 2006, the new funding brings J&J’s total investment in Medical Center research this year to $400,000.

The second round award-winners were Deborah Fowell, Ph.D., assistant professor of Microbiology & Immunology; Ian Nicholas Crispe, Ph.D., associate director of the David H. Smith Center for Vaccine Biology and Immunology; and Andrei Yakovlev, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology.

With support from the award, Fowell is researching new ways to harness the body’s natural regulatory lymphocytes to hold the immune system in check. Her work with regulatory T cells could lead to new drugs that either damp down the immune system when it mistakes our own cells for foreign invaders (e.g. autoimmune diseases) or pump up the immune system’s attack on disease-related molecules that have fooled our system into passing them by (e.g. tumors and chronic infection).

Crispe will seek to prove his theory on how the drug ribavirin works. Ribavirin is part of the current, leading combination treatment for hepatitis C, but the exact mechanism by which the drug works is unknown. If solved, it could lead to the design of new drugs that outperform ribavirin, but with fewer side effects, in treating a virus that affects 200 million worldwide.  

Yakovlev seeks to develop new statistical tools that could enable genetic researchers to pull more information out of high-speed computer analysis of the human genome, better decipher genetic patterns and interactions, and better understand how the human gene code coordinates the building and function of human tissues. 

“Growth in funding from the National Institutes of Health has slowed dramatically in recent years, and academic research centers have sought alternative funding sources in response,” said Howard J. Federoff, M.D., Ph.D., senior associate dean for basic science research at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. “The continued of support of J&J is keeping research projects alive here that might otherwise have been shelved.”

The fund’s review committee, consisting of members from the Medical Center and Johnson & Johnson, received 38 research concept proposals from medical center scientists as part of this second round.

Applications were reviewed by the medical center’s Office of Corporate Alliances (OCA), J&J and by two dozen faculty members with expertise in relevant areas. Each paper was scored based on the whether the research described was truly new, had potential of significant impact on patients, had overall scientific merit and feasibility and on capability of the research team itself. Co-developed by OCA and Johnson & Johnson’s Corporate Office of Science and Technology (COSAT), the fund is also focused on development of therapeutic areas and technology platforms of strategic interest to J&J for potential product development. To qualify, research projects had to have arrived at the stage where a carefully designed study could provide preliminary proof that the work can advance treatment or improve diagnosis. 

Awards will consist of what is termed “no rights” grants, meaning that Johnson & Johnson will have no special rights to any discoveries or patents that arise from research supported by the agreement. All intellectual property rights to the discoveries will be retained by the Medical Center and its inventors. J&J will fund project on a renewable basis with proposals solicited twice a year. The next request for applications is to be made in November.

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