A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Big Science in Little Rhody


Researchers show off NIH-funded projects.

Rhode Island is packing a wallop against diseases such as malaria, cancer, autism, and preeclampsia in large part because of a National Institutes of Health program that has funded nine major biomedical research centers across the state in the last 15 years. As biologists and physicians gathered in the Alpert Medical School building in April to celebrate participation in the Institutional Development Awards (IDeA), they had plenty of science to showcase.

“These [NIH-funded research centers] have been incredibly successful,” says James Padbury, MD, the William and Mary Oh–William and Elsa Zopfi Professor of Pediatrics for Perinatal Research and pediatrician-in-chief and chief of neonatal/perinatal medicine at Women & Infants Hospital. He directs one of the centers, and says the grants have built a modern and powerful infrastructure for studying genomics and proteomics, for example, and accelerated many young science careers in the state.

With more than $170 million of funding, the state’s eight Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) and the IDeA Network for BioMedical Research Excellence (INBRE) have brought economic opportunity to Rhode Island, says Jack A. Elias, MD, dean of medicine and biological sciences. IDeA’s mission is to ensure that all states—including small ones— share in substantial NIH funding.

Governor Gina Raimondo shares her enthusiasm during the lunch program.

Governor Gina Raimondo shares her enthusiasm during the lunch program. (Credit: Stephanie Ewans Photography).

Jennifer Sanders PhD’05, assistant professor of pediatrics (research) and a Rhode Island Hospital researcher, described her findings that administering the chemical rapamycin in a critical three-week window can reduce cancerous lesions in the liver. Her work in the COBRE for Cancer Research and Development has traced the molecular mechanisms underlying the effect of a pathway called mTOR. The hope is inhibition of mTOR, or its downstream effectors, may be a chemopreventive strategy against hepatocellular carcinoma.

In the COBRE for Cancer Signaling Networks, Richard Freiman, PhD, associate professor of medical science, is elucidating molecular pathways he’s linked to ovarian cancer. His team has found that decreasing the levels of the protein Notch3 reduces the levels of a particular collagen protein in ovarian cancer cells. That, in turn, reduces the cells’ ability to resist cell death through a process called anoikis. “We are presently testing a number of biological and small molecule inhibitors of Notch3,” he says. “We’re hoping we’ll be able to slow down the ability of these ovarian cancer cells to spread.”

Deyu Li, PhD, INBRE researcher and University of Rhode Island assistant professor of pharmacy, is taking on HIV with a novel idea called “lethal mutagenesis.” Viruses replicate and sometimes mutate naturally. The idea Li is advancing in the lab is to artificially accelerate that process to compel the virus to mutate too much. Eventually it reaches the “error catastrophe limit” and can no longer survive, he says.

The presentations represented just a fraction of what the IDeA centers have produced. Dozens of posters in the building atrium highlighted even more projects in a small state’s formidable quiver of COBREs.


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