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NIEHS Announces First Director's Challenge Award

By Eddy Ball
November 2006

Steven Kleeberger
Director's Challenge Award Winner Steven Kleeberger. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

preterm birth graphic
Kleeberger's project presentation included this compelling graphic from a new Institute of Medicine study on preterm birth. The image added aesthetic appeal to the proposal for addressing brochopulmonary dysplasia among preterm infants. (Cover graphic courtesy of Steve Kleeberger)

Transcending barriers in quality translational research is the overall theme of the Director's Challenge Award, a pilot program developed by NIEHS Director David A. Schwartz, M.D., that made its initial grant award in October. Laboratory of Respiratory Biology (LRB) Chief Steven Kleeberger, Ph.D., and his colleagues received the 2006 award for an interdisciplinary research program that promises to meet that objective - and set the direction for NIEHS translational studies to follow.

Kleeberger and colleagues proposed a five-year Integrative Research Program that cuts across the borders of disciplines, institutional divisions and specialties, as well as geography, culture and language, to produce an exemplary translational research model made up of three interactive projects and a training component supported by an Administrative Core. For the veteran researcher and former Johns Hopkins University professor, the award offers the satisfaction of pursuing translational research related to his long-standing interest in genetic susceptibility to respiratory diseases such as brochopulmonary dysplasia [BPD] among premature infants.

"The award allows us to bring together investigators who under normal circumstances might not be working with each other," Kleeberger explained. "We're addressing a very real public health problem with oxidant stress-induced diseases, and in the spirit of the Director's Challenge, we'll be moving forward and making some significant translational progress with BPD."

Under Kleeberger's direction, an interdisciplinary team of NIEHS scientists at main campus labs, researchers with the Pamerican Infant Translational Research Center at Johns Hopkins University and investigators at Fundacion INFANT in Buenos Aires, Argentina will collaborate in a feed-forward, feed-back process of research between basic science and clinical application. The researchers will work toward understanding more completely the role of specific genes that increase human susceptibility to oxidant stress-induced inflammatory diseases such as BPD. The program's central research interest may be respiratory biology and pulmonary conditions, such as asthma and BPD, but the results will be applicable to atherosclerosis, cancer, cardiovascular disorders and neurodegenerative diseases as well.

The interdisciplinary team's research will cross organizational divisions among labs, incorporating cell biology studies using several organisms, mouse models, genetic polymorphism, genomics, clinical research and patient samples from infants with BPD. In one component, directed by Principal Investigator Fernando Polack, M.D., of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers will establish a prospective cohort of 1200 case-parent triads in Argentina for the clinical component of the program.

The program will establish a highly collaborative research team uniting bench science with clinical research and patient outcomes. The team includes physician scientists, such as Polack and Co-Investigator Michael Fessler, M.D., LRB tenure-track investigator, as well as scientists representing other disciplines. DERT Program Analysis Branch Chief and Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Investigator Ben Van Houten, Ph.D., will be the Principal Investigator for a component of the study examining the role of mitochondrial reactive oxygen species in hyperoxia-induced tissue injury.

Other co-investigators from NIEHS are Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Senior Investigator Douglas A. Bell, Ph.D., Environmental Diseases and Medicine Program Biostatistics Branch Mathematical Statistician Clare Weinberg, Ph.D., and Environmental Toxicology Program and Laboratory of Molecular Toxicology Senior Investigator Rick Paules, Ph.D. Investigators will also collaborate with researchers at Duke University, the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and the University of Buenos Aires.

Supporting the program is an Administrative Core coordinated by Kleeberger, Bell and Administrative Support Specialist Sharyn Rigsbee. Office of the Scientific Director Program Director Joan Packenham, Ph.D., worked closely with Kleeberger in designing the program and will provide grant management services during its five years of funding. The training component of the program will recruit and train doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows in the area of translational research.

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