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Michael Volkert and Jonathan Watts awarded BRIDGE grants for innovative research

Funding supports projects with potential to develop commercially viable treatments for asthma, eye diseases

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

December 12, 2019

From left, Jonathan Watts, PhD; Jim Glasheen, PhD; and Michael Volkert, PhD

UMass Medical School scientists Jonathan Watts, PhD, and Michael Volkert, PhD, have been awarded grants from the school’s fall 2019 BRIDGE Fund. BRIDGE awards are given out twice a year to enable critical research to advance discoveries into potentially viable commercial therapies for diagnosing and treating human diseases.

Dr. Watts, associate professor of RNA therapeutics, will apply his grant to research into how ADAM33-targeted antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) may stave off asthma in children with family histories of the disease. The leading chronic disease in children, asthma runs in families, suggesting a genetic predisposition that interacts with environmental triggers early in life. The Watts lab has already made important discoveries about ASOs and ADAM33 gene expression.

“The asthma susceptibility gene ADAM33 has been associated with asthma, COPD and other types of impaired lung function,” said Watts. “We have now demonstrated that ASOs that inhibit expression of ADAM33 are a very promising approach to  address unmet clinical needs in asthma, COPD and other lung diseases.”

Dr. Volkert, professor of microbiology & physiological systems, is studying gene therapy for the prevention of retinal degeneration. Millions of Americans are visually impaired due to retinal degenerative diseases such as macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and retinitis pigmentosa. Volkert’s proposed gene therapy reduces the oxidative stress that causes cell death in most retinal degenerative diseases.

“We are targeting a common feature of many different retinal degenerative diseases with the potential of saving the eyesight of millions of patients suffering from retinal degeneration,” said Volkert. “Our approach preserves photoreceptors and prevents or delays their death by relieving the oxidative stress that leads to cell death.”

The fund was established by BRIDGE, which encompasses both the office of Business Development and Office of Technology Management to support innovative scientific advances at the medical school. The overall BRIDGE initiative supports the institution’s research portfolio through numerous programs that promote entrepreneurship and innovation by leveraging the wide array of expertise and capabilities that exist throughout the UMMS academic community. Guided by an external advisory board of industry leaders, the fund is investing up to $1 million annually in projects by UMMS researchers whose work shows promise for commercialization and translation to a clinical application.

Watts and Volkert were honored at an award ceremony hosted by Jim Glasheen, PhD, executive vice chancellor of business development and innovation, who administers the fund along with Katherine Luzuriaga, MD, the UMass Memorial Health Care Chair in Biomedical Research; professor of molecular medicine, pediatrics and medicine; and vice provost of clinical and translational research. The fund is managed by Steven Munevar, PhD, MBA, senior business development manager for business development.

Related story on UMassMedNow:
UMass Medical School awards grants to advance commercialization of research discoveries