Five WUSTL scientists awarded Bear Cub grants

Washington University has awarded five Bear Cub Fund grants totaling $150,000 to support innovative research that shows commercial potential.

The grants were awarded to: Zhou-Feng Chen, Ph.D., associate professor of anesthesiology, of psychiatry and of developmental biology; Dan Moran, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, of physical therapy and of neurobiology; Brian Dieckgrafe, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine; Robyn Klein, M.D., associate professor of medicine, of pathology and immunology and of neurobiology; and Michael Pasque, M.D., professor of surgery and of radiology.

Chen, who in 2007 identified the first gene for itch sensation in the central nervous system, will undertake a project to identify drugs that can reduce chronic itching. While itching caused by bug bites or allergic reactions can be treated effectively with antihistamine drugs, these medications don’t work well for chronic itching related to skin ailments, kidney failure or liver disease.

Moran’s project will evaluate whether a new technique can improve the success of lumbar spinal fusion surgery. Moran and his colleagues developed a technique to electrically stimulate the bone matrix within spinal vertebrae, which has been shown in preliminary studies to improve the fusion of vertebrae.

Dieckgraefe’s grant will fund work to improve production of the immune-stimulating drug GM-CSF for the treatment of Crohn’s disease. Early reports have suggested that the drug, modeled after the naturally occurring GM-CSF protein, can improve Crohn’s symptoms. Unfortunately, the drug must be given daily by injection, and the way the drug is currently produced can reduce its effectiveness. Dieck-graefe plans to modify production to counter these issues.

Klein will develop production of the antibody CXCR4 and investigate whether it can be used to diagnose multiple sclerosis (MS) or track progression of the disease. Extensive magnetic resonance imaging is used to diagnose MS patients and monitor disease progression, but the scans can be inconclusive. Klein is interested in developing a blood test for MS that correlates levels of the CXCR4 antibody with the extent of disease.

Pasque seeks to develop technology that integrates from a single MRI scan of the heart, information about cardiac function and anatomy. Patients with suspected heart problems must undergo different types of heart scans to assess heart function and anatomy. Pasque said he hopes his technology eventually will simplify the diagnosis of heart ailments.

The Bear Cub Fund, made up of endowment income and capital from private sources, is administered through the University’s Office of Technology Management. The office worked with BioGenerator and other advisers from the St. Louis life sciences community to select awardees.