Miller and Alkema receive Gates Foundation Exploration Grant

Date Posted: 2009-08-19

Stephen Miller an assistant professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology and Mark Alkema an assistant professor of neurobiology have been awarded funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Through its five-year, $100 million Grand Challenges Explorations initiative, a commitment to promote innovation leading to improved global health, the Gates Foundation is making one-year, $100,000 grants to explore how unique approaches can be used to prevent infectious disease. Drs. Miller and Alkema were awarded one of 81 grants to researchers in 17 countries to explore bold and largely untested hypotheses. In the course of informal lunchtime discussions about their work, they conceived of a collaborative project, “Inhibition of Octopamine Biosynthesis in Invertebrates,” proposing an unusual approach to infectious diseases spread by parasitic invertebrates. When professor of medicine and lunch companion Neil Aronin, MD, whose daughter contracted malaria while working in Africa, heard their idea, he urged them to apply for funding.

Found only in invertebrates, the neurotransmitter octopamine plays a crucial role in invertebrate behavior and fertility. Miller and Alkema’s study will attempt to design drugs that disrupt the biosynthesis of octopamine as a new strategy to interfere with the lifecycle of invertebrate parasites that carry and spread devastating infectious diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. The project will utilize Alkema’s understanding of neurotransmitter mechanisms and Miller’s expertise in synthesizing compounds to disable disease-carrying parasites without harming their human hosts.

Miller, who came to UMMS in 2004 following a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University in the laboratory of distinguished biologist Timothy J. Mitchison, PhD, earned his doctorate at the University of California San Francisco. Alkema, at UMMS since 2005, earned his PhD at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and completed post-doctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate H. Robert Horvitz, PhD. “Our project is a great example of what makes UMMS special,” said Alkema. “It’s not everywhere you can get support for an unusual project you created over discussions at lunch,” agreed Miller. “If we achieve favorable results with this introductory grant, we will apply for additional funding from the Gates Foundation to expand our approach.”