Washington University awarded $80 million in stimulus grants

Washington University has been awarded nearly $80 million in funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Re-investment Act (ARRA) to support research across a broad range of projects, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, renewable energy, diabetes and climate change.

As of Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year, university faculty had received 207 awards. Some $73 million came from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), ranking Washington University among the top 10 academic institutions in NIH stimulus funds. Other awards were received from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

“The research funding we have been able to attract to Washington University will lead to new discoveries that will have direct benefit to people throughout our region and, indeed, across the world,” says Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “Our successful competition for this funding is in large measure due to our many talented and experienced faculty who have distinguished themselves as world-class researchers. I am proud of the extra effort that many in our community made to bring this funding to St. Louis.”

In all, 175 faculty members in the schools of Medicine, Arts & Sciences, Engineering and Social Work received awards. The largest chunk – $10 million – went to the Genome Center for a project to generate comprehensive genetic maps of mutations that underlie 20 different types of cancer. The researchers will sequence the DNA of cancer patients and compare it to DNA from tumor samples of the same patients to identify genetic changes that may be important to cancer. Over time, the project is expected to lead to new ways to diagnose, treat or even prevent cancer.

Other awards include:

  • Developing the technology to produce lithium iron phosphate nanoparticles, which have the potential to improve rechargeable batteries used in portable electronic devices as well as electric cars. Batteries using these nanoparticles are likely to be less expensive, hold a greater charge and last longer than those currently on the market.
  • Testing an MRI-based heart imaging technique that has the potential to determine whether the heart muscle is alive or dead more accurately than currently available tests. The technique offers unprecedented precision in locating damaged and nonfunctioning areas of the heart and may help to improve the effectiveness of cardiac surgery.
  • Investigating ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease before the onset of dementia by combining information from brain scans that image amyloid plaques – a key feature of Alzheimer’s – with an analysis of key proteins in spinal fluid. Earlier diagnosis could allow patients to receive new treatments before the disease causes irreversible brain changes that lead to memory loss.
  • Understanding how current and future global climate change can alter the spread of seeds carried by wind. Scientists will test a model for wind-driven seed dispersal they developed in a large-scale habitat in South Carolina and communicate results with the U.S. Forest Service to aid in conservation efforts.
  • Establishing a program that helps guide women in poor, minority communities in north St. Louis County through breast cancer screening and follow-up treatment, if needed. Deaths from breast cancer among minority women in this community are substantially higher than the national average.
  • Evaluating a potential new treatment in patients with type-2 diabetes that is designed to better regulate the release of insulin and maintain healthy glucose levels.
  • Determining whether blood transfusions can prevent “silent” strokes in children with severe sickle cell anemia, as part of an international clinical trial of the therapy. Over time, the strokes can cause neurological problems and are a potentially fatal complication of the disease.
  • Installing an array of seismographs on the islands of Fiji and on the nearby ocean floor to help determine why some earthquakes occur deep below the earth’s surface, where the rock should be malleable and not susceptible to fracture. The research may eventually lead to better understanding of volcanoes, island arc systems, earthquakes and other violent geologic events.

The awards both large and small have a significant economic impact in the St. Louis region. A recent survey of the economic impact of research grants from the NIH has shown that every dollar of NIH funding to Missouri in 2007 generated $2.09 of economic activity in the community that received the award.

“By this estimate, the recent stimulus funding to Washington University will generate well over $200 million in goods and services in our region,” says Evan Kharasch, M.D., Ph.D., the university’s interim vice chancellor of research. “Moreover, research conducted with stimulus funds furthers our efforts to improve the lives of all people.”

Additional stimulus grants will be announced in the coming months. Washington University still has a number of grant applications under review at various federal agencies.