Washington University in St. Louis Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton issued a statement Feb. 13 following the release of President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for 2013 in which Wrighton noted the importance of our nation’s continued investment in scientific research.
“The president’s budget recognizes the importance of funding for the kinds of basic scientific research that is carried out at great American research universities like Washington University in St. Louis. Especially in the midst of a challenging fiscal environment, I appreciate that the president has chosen to maintain our nation’s investment in scientific research.
“In the last fiscal year, the talented scholars, scientists and physicians at Washington University successfully competed for more than $600 million in research funding. More than $450 million of that was from federal sources, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“These awards allow our scientists to make important discoveries that encourage innovation and ultimately lead to better patient care, efficient energy sources, and new companies and products while at the same time preparing our students to be the workforce we need to remain competitive in this increasingly global economy.
“At Washington University, we are proud of the contributions we have made toward solving some of the most difficult issues facing our country. In the world of medicine, we have made great strides in recent years in confronting diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and we have helped lead the way in addressing some of the St. Louis community’s most pressing health issues, like obesity and the health disparities that exist between racial groups.
“Additionally, federal funding for research in areas like biology, chemistry and engineering is helping make America’s energy future more independent, sustainable and safe. Given below are just four examples of federally funded research at Washington University that have the potential to improve the lives of all Americans and advance our scientific understanding.
“The president’s budget will now be shaped by Congress and there are areas, like the NIH, that require increased funding to ensure continued U.S. leadership. I strongly encourage all members of Congress to support scientific research as a key national investment in our future.”
Federally funded research examples at Washington University
Cancer genomics — a path toward personalized medicine
Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine are playing a leading role in an effort to understand the genetic basis of cancer. By decoding the genomes of cancer patients and the genomes of their tumor cells, and comparing the genetic sequences side-by-side, they can identify the unique genetic changes at the root of a patient’s cancer. This research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, has laid the foundation for applying a more personalized approach to cancer treatment. Rather than base treatment decisions on where cancer is located in the body, doctors conceivably could select therapies based on the underlying genetic defects in a patient’s tumor. To date, our scientists have sequenced the genomes of hundreds of cancer patients, which has allowed them to identify novel cancer mutations that are improving the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
Alzheimer’s disease — improving early diagnosis, treatment
Scientists now think that Alzheimer’s begins to ravage the brain 10 to 20 years before signs of dementia develop. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine are exploring multiple avenues to detect the disease in its earliest stages and treat it before a patient’s memory deteriorates. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, they are leading an international collaboration to understand inherited forms of the disease, caused by mutations in key genes. As part of this collaboration, Washington University investigators soon will begin clinical trials of drugs designed to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Patients enrolled in the trial won’t have Alzheimer’s symptoms but will have inherited genetic mutations that make it certain they will develop the disease, often at a young age. If the drugs can slow or prevent Alzheimer’s in these patients, they could then be evaluated in others at risk of developing the disease.
Energy independence — making solar energy more efficient
An interdisciplinary group of Washington University science and engineering researchers, along with several other select scientists from academia, private research institutes and national laboratories, are working together to understand the basic scientific principles that govern solar energy collection by photosynthetic organisms, which use structures called antennae to collect and funnel light energy to reaction centers where it can be fixed in a more permanent form. Funded by the Department of Energy, the team plans to use this knowledge to enhance natural antenna systems and to fabricate biohybrid and bioinspired systems for light-harvesting. The overriding goal is to open the path to simple, robust light-harvesting systems with efficiencies equal to or better than the native photosynthetic antenna and that will contribute to revolutionary advances in artificial systems for solar-energy conversion.
Planetary research — exploring the global habitability of planets
Washington University’s Earth and Planetary Remote Sensing Laboratory directed by Ray Arvidson, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences, focuses on the surface processes and histories of Earth, Mars and Venus. Laboratory personnel have been or are involved in NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, Odyssey, Mars Exploration Rover, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix Mars Lander, and Mars Science Laboratory missions. The laboratory also participated in the Magellan mission to Venus and the 2008 NASA Mars Phoenix Lander mission. The laboratory’s mission is defining the global habitability of planets, with a current focus on Mars and past and present conditions that may have been suitable for the development and evolution of life. As the home of the Geosciences Node of the NASA Planetary Data System, the laboratory is responsible for curating and archiving data from planetary space missions. This data is available for public access through the node. Students are also actively involved in the laboratory as a part of innovative undergraduate courses such as the Pathfinder Program in Environmental Sustainability, in which multidisciplinary approaches to environmental problems are stressed.