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Pediatrics research gets a boost from stimulus grants

Department of Pediatrics faculty members got a lift in medical research funding over the past year, thanks in part to more than $4.3 million they’ve received through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).They’ve been awarded 16 grants for projects in hematology, oncology, and blood and marrow transplantation; epidemiology and clinical research; infectious disease; and neonatology.

Kim Johnson, Ph.D., Julie Ross, Ph.D., and David Largaespada, Ph.D. (Photo: Emily Jensen) Professor Julie Ross, Ph.D., for example, received a two-year, $100,000 grant to determine how maternal folic acid intake affects the development of a type of malignant brain cancer called medulloblastoma.

Some research suggests that folic acid could protect against medulloblastoma in children, but most evidence comes from observational studies—comparing folic acid intake between mothers who have children with cancer and mothers who have healthy children, Ross says.

So to test the theory in a laboratory setting, Ross and colleagues David Largaespada, Ph.D., and Kim Johnson, Ph.D., are exploring how much maternal folic acid, if any, might protect against medulloblastoma in mice. The researchers randomly assign normal female mice to receive one of three doses of folic acid in their food and then mate them with male mice that are predisposed to the cancer. Once the offspring are born, the team monitors them for development of medulloblastoma—and assesses how fast tumors develop.

“It bridges the gaps found in the observational studies in humans and serves as a great first step for knowing whether maternal folic acid intake affects a child’s risk of developing cancer,” Ross says. “If our study shows that folic acid levels are important, we can develop additional studies that determine why.”

Down the road, she says, those findings could help pave the way for public health strategies to reduce the risk of childhood cancers.

Assistant professor Alistair McGregor, Ph.D., also received $275,000 in stimulus funding for a two-year study focused on creating a novel vaccine for newborns infected with cytomegalovirus (congenital CMV), a potentially life-threatening virus that also can cause mental, developmental, vision, and hearing problems.

While a few vaccines for CMV are in development, they are mostly effective by stopping the virus from getting into only one type of cell in the body—fibroblasts. But in reality, McGregor says, research shows that CMV can invade many types of cells.

McGregor’s vaccine uses a live form of CMV, one that is unable to replicate once it reaches the body. Because of its novel structure, the vaccine should produce a more natural, broader, and longer-lasting immune response to the virus with the advantage of being relatively safe, he says. In theory, the immune response should prevent the virus from infecting many different types of cells and eliminate the risk of congenital CMV infection.

With the stimulus funding, McGregor and his colleagues are using a guinea pig model to evaluate the potency of the vaccine immune response and level of protection against CMV.

“If the vaccine proves effective in creating a strong immune reaction in the animal model, it will get us that much closer to our goal of protecting humans from CMV through a life-lasting vaccine,” McGregor explains.

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