URMC Lung Research Awarded $4.7M to Establish a Respiratory Pathogens Research Center

Computing Capability Helps Lure Initiative to Rochester

December 27, 2011

A cluster of IBM Blue Gene supercomputers

The University of Rochester Medical Center has been awarded $4.7 million from the Federal government, with several options for additional funding, to establish a center to study the germs that cause lung disease.

The agreement with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, took effect earlier this month. The agreement, renewable on a year-by-year basis, could last potentially for seven years. If the agreement lasts the full seven years, contract funding may be at least $35 million, and support could reach as much as $50 million, if NIAID exercises all its options. University officials expect the contract to create or retain a total of approximately 250 jobs at the University – a mix of laboratory technicians, study coordinators, nurses, information analysts, scientists, and others.

The center is being established by NIH to help protect citizens against bacteria and viruses that take aim at the respiratory system. These cause pneumonia and flu, as well as a host of other infections caused by lesser-known but still-deadly microbes such as coronaviruses, metapneumoviruses, parainfluenza viruses, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), as well as a host of bacteria.

David Topham, Ph.D.

The creation of the center places the University at the vanguard of the health of the nation’s citizens. The new center, known as the Respiratory Pathogens Research Center, effectively puts University scientists “on call” in the realm of respiratory infections. In times of national need, center personnel are available at the request of Federal officials to take on urgent projects to inform public health needs.

A key to the new center is the new University of Rochester Health Sciences Center for Computational Innovation (HSCCI), an emerging partnership between the University and IBM. The centerpiece of the proposed $100 million arrangement between IBM and the University will be an array of IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputers with the capacity to analyze huge amounts of information quickly – a crucial ability at a time when biomedical researchers create unprecedented amounts of data. Earlier this month, New York State awarded the University $5 million for the initiative – which will create one of the most powerful computer systems dedicated to health research in the world – as part of the state’s regional economic development council competition.

Creation of the new center was led by microbiologist David Topham, Ph.D., an influenza researcher who also directs the HSCCI.

An influenza viral particle (Illustration courtesy of Dan Higgins/CDC)

“Dave Topham and his team deserve kudos not only for their great work in the past but for the potential their new center has to reduce the tragedy of a variety of lung diseases,” said Joel Seligman, president of the University of Rochester. “The award also is evidence of the potential of high performance computing to transform the way we study, monitor, and treat diseases. The recent investment by New York State in the HSCCI represents a critical downpayment on this initiative, which will serve to not only improve health, but also lead to substantial regional economic growth.”

“This is one of the largest projects ever undertaken by our scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and we expect the payoff to be enormous, both for the region’s economy and for the health of people worldwide,” said Bradford C. Berk, M.D., Ph.D., CEO of URMC. “Immunology and infectious disease research have long been outstanding strengths of the Medical Center. Several widely used vaccines and improved health across the globe are direct results of that expertise.”

Scientists estimate that roughly 2 million children and 4 million people overall die worldwide each year from acute respiratory infections. In the United States alone, approximately 65 million people each year visit their doctors or emergency rooms with symptoms from respiratory infections.

Ann Falsey, M.D.

“There is a desperate need to understand how these infections lead to complications, and a need to develop better ways to treat or prevent these diseases,” said Topham, professor of Microbiology and Immunology, who assembled a team of scientists and physicians with uncommonly broad expertise in respiratory diseases to create the center.

“Our team is a great mix of physicians and nurses who take care of patients, researchers who study patients, and investigators who explore the science of the respiratory system. And many of our people do all three,” said Topham. “It’s our ability to put patient care and research together that makes this work. That’s our strength at Rochester.”

The center will include a broad range of activity: research in the laboratory about why people respond as they do to infection; translational research where scientists seek to make new findings relevant to patients as efficiently as possible; and clinical studies where new drugs or vaccines are tested in people.

While the specific projects to be undertaken have not been decided upon, they could include projects such as:

  • Studies in people of an experimental vaccine designed to protect the elderly against pneumonia;
  • An unprecedented look at the interactions between the germs that normally live in our bodies and help to keep us healthy, and harmful germs like the flu;
  • How and why some children fight off an RSV infection effectively while others become very sick;
  • How the body first recognizes respiratory viruses and then rouses the immune system to kill them – key knowledge for the creation of new vaccines;
  • How flu vaccines might be modified so they can be safer and more effective for people who have had organ transplants;
  • How viruses harm the breathing of infants born prematurely, with researchers working with collaborators with the University’s Prematurity and Respiratory Outcomes Program (PROP);
  • What happens in the body when viruses and bacteria both cause infection at the same time. A common example occurs when a patient catches a cold and is told that an antibiotic won’t be helpful. The patient becomes sicker and sicker and then, weeks later, finds out that a bacterial infection has also occurred, and that indeed, antibiotics would now improve his or her health.
  • Additional clinical trials of drugs or vaccines for respiratory diseases in children or adults, with studies ranging in size from a few dozen participants to hundreds at sites around the world, depending on the need.

Ann Falsey, M.D., professor of medicine at the University and an infectious disease specialist at Rochester General Hospital, will help direct the center. Falsey is an international expert on RSV and will lead the team’s efforts to understand the virus as well as possibly test potential vaccines and treatments.

Other faculty investigators at the University include John Treanor, M.D.; Mary Caserta, M.D.; Stephen Gill, Ph.D.; Hulin Wu, Ph.D.; Minsoo Kim, Ph.D.; Andrea Sant, Ph.D.; Thomas Mariani, Ph.D.; Martin Zand, M.D., Ph.D.; Mark Sangster, Ph.D.; Gloria Pryhuber, M.D.; and Edward Walsh, M.D.

Richard Scheuermann, Ph.D., a computational informatics scientist from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas will also take part. The team has also enlisted potential collaborators around the world – from Buffalo to Brazil, from South Africa to India – who are ready to contribute if needed.

The new center fits squarely in the University’s history of protecting people against respiratory threats. Among the other accomplishments or resources:

  • The New York Influenza Center of Excellence, one of five national centers established by NIH in 2007 to study influenza, and to try to prevent and prepare for flu pandemics. This University center is led by John Treanor, M.D., who was awarded $29 million to create the center – previously the largest NIH contract awarded to a Medical Center researcher.
  • The Vaccine Research Unit, which has played a crucial role protecting people against threats like flu, bird flu, whooping cough, and other diseases. Indeed, Treanor led the nationwide study that resulted in the nation’s first approved vaccine against bird flu. Currently the unit has a $15.5 million agreement with NIH to study live vaccines aimed at variants of flu that might occur. This work occurs at the FEVUR – the Facility for the Evaluation of Viruses at UR.
  • The Center for Biodefense Immune Modeling, which endeavors to apply computational and mathematical modeling to better understand the immune response to influenza infection and vaccination, and is led by Martin Zand, M.D., Ph.D., and Hulin Wu, Ph.D. This center was established with a $10 million award in 2004, and renewed for five more years in 2009.
  • Medical Center researchers helped develop surfactant technology that gives life to a majority of children born extremely prematurely. Fifty years ago, about 90 percent of infants who weighed less than about 1.5 pounds died, often from acute respiratory distress syndrome caused by the inability of their immature lungs to function properly. Today, roughly 90 percent of those preemies live. Contributing to the difference was the successful development at Rochester of lung surfactant. Rochester researchers were the first to administer lung surfactant to premature infants, dramatically improving their survival rates.
  • Medical Center researchers ushered in a renaissance of vaccine development nationwide with their creation of a new type of vaccine known as a conjugate vaccine 30 years ago. That work resulted in two commercial vaccines, one of which has dramatically curbed the number of infections that cause pneumonia as well as ear infections and meningitis in children.

“Rochester has long been a national powerhouse in the area of infectious disease, particularly respiratory infections,” said Topham. “We have several different centers focusing on infectious disease, with people approaching the problem from many perspectives, and we’re building on that foundation to do even more.”

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