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A record year for NIH funding

Woman with golden brown hair, wearing white lab coat and pale blue gloves, looking at slide
Dr. Ondine Cleaver, Professor of Molecular Biology, secured three NIH grants totaling $4.99 million to support investigations aimed at discovering the fundamental processes by which cells are specialized to form organs and tissues.

UT Southwestern secured record funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in fiscal year 2020, in both the number of grants and the total level of funding. In all, 153 grants representing current and future support of more than $253.26 million were approved in the last fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31. 

That’s a 17 percent jump in the number of approved NIH grants to UTSW scientists from the previous fiscal year and a 6.8 percent increase in the funding established in the past cycle and continuing through the span of multiyear awards. 

“This significant increase in NIH funding is a testament to the high quality of research done at UT Southwestern and a strong indication that our faculty members are held in high esteem by their peers who review grant applications,” said Dr. David Russell, Vice Provost and Dean of Research. 

Funding in the latest fiscal year includes support to develop interventions to improve outcomes for substance use disorders; investigate the causes of a childhood cancer called Ewing sarcoma; uncover the circuits in the brain that contribute to the beneficial metabolic effects of exercise; and better understand the processes regulating cellular differentiation. 

Man in green shirt standing by sign that reads Lyda Hill department of bioinformatics.
Dr. Gaudenz Danuser, Chair of the Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics, has seven ongoing multiyear projects in play that have received NIH grant funding.

Active NIH investigations on campus total 630, supported by more than $228.38 million received last fiscal year alone. These grants support preeminent researchers like Dr. Philipp Scherer, Director of the Touchstone Center for Diabetes Research, who is the Principal Investigator or primary faculty mentor for eight active NIH investigations, and Drs. Margaret Phillips and Gaudenz Danuser, both of whom similarly have seven ongoing multiyear projects in play. Dr. Phillips is Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Dr. Danuser is Chair of the Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics. 

Here is a look at some of the top awards secured to UT Southwestern investigators in FY 2020: 


Substance use disorders 

Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, Chief of the Division of Mood Disorders in the Department of Psychiatry, received a $13.12 million Clinical Trials Network Node Grant to investigate novel interventions to improve outcomes for substance use disorders. The five-year grant includes funding for UTSW to coordinate three large multicenter treatment studies that include two pharmacological approaches and one transmagnetic stimulation study to assess efficacy for cocaine and methamphetamine use disorders. Substance abuse, particularly the use of stimulants and opioids in the fourth wave of the opioid epidemic, has been identified as a major public health problem.  

Man in suit standing in hallway.
Dr. Madhukar Trivedi received a $13.12 million Clinical Trials Network Node Grant to investigate novel interventions to improve outcomes for substance use disorders.

“Research is needed to not only develop new treatments, but also to determine how to best broadly disseminate the treatments that are currently available and effective,” said Dr. Trivedi, a Professor of Psychiatry who has received continuous federal funding for the Clinical Trials Network Node since 2005. “We have recently completed a very important study on a novel treatment strategy for severe methamphetamine use disorder, and the findings are likely to change the way we treat substance use disorders in the future. In fact, some of the greatest discoveries about diagnosis and treatment of all mental illnesses have resulted from studies funded by the NIH.” 


Ewing sarcoma 

Dr. David McFadden, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and a member of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, received a $10 million grant that provides five years of support to a collaborative team of UTSW scientists. The researcher will study the protein EWSR1-FLI1, which is thought to be the cause of Ewing sarcoma. This childhood cancer occurs in bones or in the soft tissue around the bones. 

Man in glasses in library
Dr. David McFadden

The grant will fund three research projects including support for three core facilities – high throughput screening, chemistry, and preclinical pharmacology – on campus focused on understanding how EWSR1-FLI1 promotes uncontrolled growth of Ewing sarcoma cells, and identifying and developing strategies to impair the function of the protein in cancer. 

“Funding from the NIH Cancer Moonshot Initiative has not only been a key source of funding for the proposed research efforts, but also made possible bringing together the exceptional team of research project and core facility leaders to apply their scientific expertise to this challenging childhood cancer,” said Dr. McFadden, who earned both his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees in 2004 through UT Southwestern’s acclaimed Medical Scientist Training Program.


The brain and metabolism 

Dr. Joel Elmquist, founding Director of the Center for Hypothalamic Research and a Professor of Internal Medicine, is Principal Investigator for a five-year project funded by the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The $9.78 million effort revolves around how exercise-induced brain activity leads to changes in metabolism and body composition, particularly poorly understood cellular mechanisms and the neural circuits underlying these responses. 

Group of six people in office
Clockwise, from top left: Drs. Jeffrey Zigman, Kevin Williams, Carlos Castorena, Syann Lee, Joel Elmquist, and Laurent Gautron were photographed in November 2019. The research team is studying how exercise-induced brain activity leads to changes in metabolism and body composition

A multidisciplinary team of researchers will examine the brain’s role in metabolism, appetite, and physical endurance. The team includes project leaders Drs. Jeffrey Zigman, Kevin Williams, and Elmquist from UTSW and Dr. Nick Betley (University of Pennsylvania). Drs. Laurent Gautron and Syann Lee from UTSW and Dr. David Wasserman (Vanderbilt University) will be core directors.  Dr. Zigman is Professor of Internal Medicine and Psychiatry, Dr. Williams is Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, and Drs. Gautron and Lee are Assistant Professors of Internal Medicine. 

“One basic question we are asking is, ‘Why does exercise training improve metabolism but yet exercise alone is not an efficient weight loss strategy?’ Our team believes that understanding the underlying mechanisms will lead to improved strategies to target circuit mechanisms and, ultimately, new treatments for conditions such as obesity and diabetes,” Dr. Elmquist said. “This support from the NIDDK and NIH not only funds research projects, but also provides key infrastructure to our growing programs in exercise biology and autonomic neuroscience.” 


Cellular signaling 

Dr. Ondine Cleaver, Professor of Molecular Biology, secured three grants totaling $4.99 million to support investigations aimed at discovering the fundamental processes by which cells are specialized to form organs and tissues. In multicellular organisms, differentiation of tissue-specific cell types occurs during development as it changes from a simple zygote to a complex system of tissues, organs, and cell types. The four-year projects collectively will investigate the genes and proteins that signal cells to become either a blood vessel, a pancreas, or a kidney. 

Woman in mask, gloves, lab coat, looking at slide.
Dr. Ondine Cleaver studies a sample in her lab.

“This will help us develop replacement and regeneration approaches to help patients with diseased organs,” said Dr. Cleaver, who leads the Genetics, Development and Disease Graduate Program. “NIH support is the lifeblood of our work. It is essential for us to hire amazing trainees and scientists that carry out the work and make discoveries, but it also helps us network with others in our field to exchange ideas and advance science.” 

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