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GEM awards $150,000 in third round of funding for microbiome and genomic research

Understanding the connection microorganisms have with our bodies may enable the development of precision medicine and empower individuals to have greater control over their health.

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published August 21, 2017

“With these newest projects, UB scientists from across disciplines have come together to dig deeper into these changes and to help establish the infrastructure necessary for advanced precision medicine.”
Jennifer Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry and co-director
Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome

Four studies focused on improving our understanding of the human genome and microbiome were awarded funding through the third round of research pilots supported by UB’s Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM).

The projects, which total $150,000, will study how the relationship between the human body and the collection of microorganisms that reside on or within it affect our risk for certain diseases.

Understanding the connection these microorganisms have with our bodies may enable the development of precision medicine and empower individuals to have greater control over their health.

The pilot grants award researchers from a variety of disciplines up to $50,000 to develop innovative projects focused on the microbiome. The funds support up to one year of research.

The awards are provided through GEM, an interdisciplinary community of UB faculty and staff dedicated to advancing research on the genome and microbiome. GEM is one of UB’s three Communities of Excellence, a $9 million initiative to harness the strengths of faculty and staff from fields across the university to confront the challenges facing humankind through research, education and engagement.

“Changes in the genome — our own or those of the microbes in, on or around us — have a tremendous impact on human health and our environment,” says Jennifer Surtees, GEM co-director and associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“With these newest projects, UB scientists from across disciplines have come together to dig deeper into these changes and to help establish the infrastructure necessary for advanced precision medicine.”

Along with Surtees, GEM is led by Timothy Murphy, executive director and SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Medicine; and Norma Nowak, co-director, professor in the Department of Biochemistry, and executive director of UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.

The funded projects involve faculty teams from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the School of Public Health and Health Professions, and the School of Dental Medicine.

Vulnerability to seizures

Inflammation in the central nervous system can increase susceptibility to seizures.

Given the role the intestinal microbiome plays in shaping inflammation in the body, UB researchers believe the tiny organisms may have an impact on the onset, strength and duration of seizures.

The study, led by Ira J. Blader, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and Alexis Thompson, senior research scientist in UB’s Research Institute on Addictions, will examine in mice the composition of the microbiome and which of its components affect seizures.

If correct, this may suggest the gut microbiome as a therapeutic target for the treatment of seizures and epilepsy.

Genomic research with Spit For Buffalo

To better understand how the human genome and microbiome interact to influence health, UB researchers will establish Spit For Buffalo, a project that will collect DNA samples from volunteer UBMD patients for use in future studies.

The researchers will collect saliva samples, anonymously link the samples to each patient’s electronic medical record, and sequence the genome and oral microbiome. By determining which genes are associated with which diseases, new connections between specific genes and diseases will be made.

Samples currently are being collected from patients in the UBMD Neurology, Internal Medicine and OBGYN clinics in the Conventus Center for Collaborative Medicine.

The project will provide an infrastructure resource for genome and microbiome investigations at UB.

The research is led by Richard M. Gronostajski, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and director of both the WNY Stem Cell Culture and Analysis Center and the Genetics, Genomics and Bioinformatics Graduate Program; Gil I. Wolfe, professor and Irvin and Rosemary Smith Chair of the Department of Neurology; Michael Buck, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and director of the WNY Stem Cell Sequencing/Epigenomics Center; and Nowak.

How RNA provides parasite with shape-shifting abilities

The parasite Trypanosoma brucei, the cause of Human African Trypanosomiasis — commonly known as sleeping sickness — radically alters its physiology and morphology as it moves between insect and mammal over the course of its life cycle.

These changes, researchers have found, are caused by various RNA binding proteins, allowing the organism to survive in environments that range from the human bloodstream to the insect gut. UB researchers will examine how these proteins regulate the parasite’s transformations.

The study is led by Laurie K. Read, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology; and Jie Wang, research assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry.

Effects of oral and gut bacteria on heart health

UB researchers will investigate the connection between oral and gut bacteria and the onset and progression of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (CVD), or the buildup of plaque around the artery walls that eventually blocks blood flow.

The study will seek to understand how the microbes in the body contribute to plaque formation in the arteries, providing the basis for interventions that reduce the effects of the microorganisms on CVD.

Previous studies have found microbes present in arterial plaques, but have not provided conclusive links to the parts of the body where the microbes originate. Researchers will use next-generation sequencing and advanced bioinformatics analysis methods to identify and characterize microorganisms in the artery walls and compare the bacteria with those present in oral, gut and skin microbiomes.

Environmental factors such as smoking, blood cholesterol and periodontal disease status also will be examined as potential factors that influence the bacteria-CVD relationship.

The research is led by Robert J. Genco, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the departments of Oral Biology and Microbiology and Immunology, and director of the UB Microbiome Center; and Michael J. LaMonte, research associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health.