Vol. 12 No. 1 - August, 2009

UMMS Scientists Receive Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Exploration Grant

Robert Carlin Photography
Stephen Miller, PhD
Robert Carlin Photography
Mark Alkema, PhD

Mark Alkema, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and Stephen Miller, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, devote most of their time to building their research programs in behavioral genetics and chemical approaches to the study of living cells, respectively. But it is for an innovative, interdisciplinary project outside the scope of their main endeavors that they 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. Alkema and Miller 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. Alkema and Miller’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.

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. 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. “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.”

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