NIA applies new strategy to address funding scarcity

In the face of increasing and intense competition for research funding, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) is employing a new short-term strategy to improve investigators’ chances of obtaining long-term funding. In a Sept. 30 blog posting, NIA’s Director of the Division of Extramural Affairs, Robin Barr, Ph.D., announced, “We are aggressively using the NIH R56 activity code for the first time…This award program provides one or two years of support to allow investigators to collect more data, develop more publications, or conduct any activity that allows them to respond to comments made in the review. ”

The NIH R56 mechanism was created roughly 10 years ago as funding lines began their precipitous decline, with awards made in order of how applications performed in review. Now, NIA is using this mechanism to fund proposals most likely to be improved by a single year of funding. The intent is for these short-term awards to generate productive research advances as well as improved applications. Also, by receiving this funding, R56 awardees who return with successful applications will then have funds distributed over two or more budget years rather than competing with the general pool of applicants for funding in the same budget year.  Note: Investigators cannot apply for an R56 grant. Applications will be selected for conversion as described above.

Barr has been tasked with evaluating the effectiveness of this strategy and will be sharing what he learns in future posts. In the meantime, he wants to hear thoughts from the research community on whether this strategy is well-conceived and how to best evaluate its success. Lend your voice here.

2015 Tanabe Address: Juan Enriquez, Nov. 4

“We are the primary drivers of change. We will directly and indirectly determine what lives, what dies, where, and when. We are in a different phase of evolution; the future of life is now in our hands.”

Juan Enriquez “Evolving Ourselves”

Join futurist Juan Enriquez as he conducts a sweeping tour of how humans are changing the course of evolution—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

Juan Enriquez: Evolving Ourselves
Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015
7 p.m.
Newmark Theater
1111 SW Broadway in Portland

$25 – Public
$10 – Students w/ID
$20 – OHSU staff w/ID (limit one per staff member use promo code “OHSU”)
Get tickets here

For more information, call 503 248-4335

The Calvin and Mayho Tanabe Address was established in 2014 to offer differing perspectives on important topics. Each year a speaker is selected to bring diverse ideas to the community and encourage a free exchange of ideas.

OHSU researchers identify enhanced functional connectivity in the brain after methamphetamine exposure

Damien Zuloaga, Ph.D., a former post-doctoral fellow in the Raber lab, and colleagues at OHSU published results of a study examining the effects of methamphetamine (MA) on the sleep-wake cycle. The article, “Enhanced functional connectivity involving the ventromedial hypothalamus following methamphetamine exposure,” appearing in the 23 September, 2015, edition of Frontiers in Neuroscience, identified MA-induced alterations in coordinated activity in the brain, particularly connectivity involving the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH). The VMH is the portion of the brain involved in satiety, thermoregulation, and fear.

MA exposure is known to both disrupt and restore circadian rhythms. Previous studies showed that sleep patterns are drastically altered almost immediately following exposure and can persist over the long term when exposure occurs during developmental phases. Other studies illustrated that the sleep rhythms in mice or rats that are arrhythmic due to damage in the portion of the brain that controls circadian cycles, the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), can be regenerated with MA treatment. These findings suggested there may be an MA-sensitive Circadian Oscillator (MASCO) somewhere in the brain that is separate from the SCN. But the location and exact mechanisms were completely unknown.

To test this hypothesis, Zuloaga, Raber, and the team assessed neuronal activation in various parts of the brain following MA exposure under both day and night conditions. They found that such activation was stronger in the light phase than in the dark phase and that–interestingly–functional connectivity between the VMH and other brain areas, including other parts of the hypothalamus as well as the amygdala, was enhanced following MA exposure. These results, along with past findings that show that the VMH is involved in synchronization of circadian rhythms of circulating levels of insulin, glucose, and triglycerides, suggest a role for the VMH in the MASCO. They also suggest new ways to address the effects of MA exposure on the brain. The alterations in coordinated brain activity following MA exposure may play an important role in the substance’s deleterious effects such as anxiety, confusion, and psychotic or violent behavior.

The findings of increased activation effects during the day compared with the night also provide new information about designing studies on MA, highlighting importance of time of day as an experimental condition.

Together, these findings are an important step in unraveling the precise action MA has on the brain. They also shed light on the nature of functional connectivity to better inform assessments of neural activity patterns. Functional connectivity is an important topic of research as part of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain and leading to new ways to treat and prevent brain disorders.

Read more about the research team their findings here.

Research team: Damian G. Zuloaga, Ph.D., Ovidu D. Iancu, Ph.D., Sydney Weber, Desiree Etzel, Tessa Marzulla, Blair Stewart, Charles N. Allen, Ph.D., Jacob Raber, Ph.D.



NIH seeks input on large-scale clinical trials on aging and the elderly   

The NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA) wants to hear from the research community regarding needs for large (over $2 million direct and/or over $3 million total costs per year) clinical trials on topics related to aging and the elderly. Suggestions will be used to help select high priority research areas that would greatly benefit from such trials to determine risks and benefits of treatments for conditions in the elderly.

The Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Geronotology (DGCG) within the NIA comprises three research areas: geriatrics, clinical gerontology, and clinical trials. The clinical trials branch is responsible for planning and administering clinical trials on age-related research with a focus on interventions including those to prevent disability, address problems associated with menopause, slow rates of age-related declines in function in early and midlife, and more. Suggestions to assist the DGCG in planning these clinical trials can include but are not limited to:

  • The topic area and current state of science indicating the need for a large scale clinical trial or trials to obtain definitive information about the benefits and risks of intervention or interventions in elderly in the topic area;
  • The prospective study population and a potential intervention or interventions and any preliminary information supporting the need for testing such an intervention or interventions in a large scale trial in the proposed population.  Drugs, devices, lifestyle modifications, and other interventions could be proposed;
  • Rationale for the selection of endpoints (clinical, functional, or surrogate). There is no need to propose specific outcome measures;
  • Estimation of sample size, duration and costs of trial(s); and
  • Any additional comments or suggestions that you think would be useful.

Please submit comments no later than May 9, 2016. See full announcement for further details and instructions.


Michael Lauer, M.D., selected as NIH’s new Deputy Director for Extramural Research

Michael Lauer, M.D.

Michael Lauer, M.D.

Last week, we reported on Sally Rockey’s departure from NIH and the last of her blog postings on Rock Talk. Today, NIH director Francis Collins announced that Michael S. Lauer, M.D., will replace Rockey as Deputy Director for Extramural Research. According to Collins, Lauer “brings both research expertise and administrative skills to the job, as well as keen insights into the world of extramural research.”

Lauer has served in leadership roles and exhibited a strong commitment to health research throughout his career. He is a board-certified cardiologist and an elected member of the American Society of Clinical Investigation.  He is the current director of the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at NIH and has held this position since 2009. Prior to arriving at NIH in 2007, Lauer served as the director of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation Exercise Laboratory and was vice chair of the clinic’s institutional review board. He also served as co-director of the Coronary Intensive Care Unit and director of clinical research in the clinic’s department of cardiology. Lauer also participates on various committees within PCORI, is actively involved in human subjects protection, and served as a contributing editor for the Journal of American Medical Association for seven years.

Read the full announcement to find out more about Lauer’s research interests, honors, and positions he’s held.

NIH to host webinars on grant application submission and review, Nov. 5 & 6

The NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) is hosting two webinars for new NIH applicants, mentors, and grant administrators. This opportunity is designed to give participants insights into the application submission and peer review processes.

The Nov. 5 webinar will focus on university research administrators. The webinar on Nov. 6 will focus on research project grants (R01s). Both sessions will run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. PST, which includes a 30 minute Q&A period.

The CSR experts will present on the following topics”

  • The Review of Your NIH Grant Application Begins Here
  • What You Need to Know about Application Receipt and Referral
  • How Your Application Is Reviewed
  • Key Things to Know About the NIH Grants Program
  • Jumpstart Your Career with CSR’s Early Career Reviewer Program (R01 webinar only)

Register by Oct. 29. You may submit questions for the Q&A session before or during the webinar by sending them to the moderator at

Research Policy Board proposed to ease regulatory burden on research universities

More research administration news: If there’s one thing that political opponents in Washington DC can agree on, at least in theory, is that research is over-regulated. Study after study after study has shown that research faculty spend about 40% of their time performing administrative duties, many of which are related to research regulations (think effort reporting) that are perceived to get in the way of actual discovery–the thing that scientists are funded to actually spend their time on. (As an aside, the number of burden studies has also increased, and Sally Rockey once quipped to your friendly Research News editors that someone needed to do a burden study of all the burden studies.) So what’s the answer? You’ll be unsurprised to learn that a Congressionally appointed committee is recommending forming a Research Policy Board to help ease the regulatory strain on federally funded institutions. While adding another layer of regulation may seem onerous, the goal for the Board would be to streamline and harmonize existing regulations to reduce complexity. Let’s call it an experiment.

Farewell to Sally Rockey and Rock Talk

Today, September 25, is National Research Administrator Day, so what better way to commemorate than with a fond farewell to the research administrator who led the Office of Extramural Affairs at NIH for the past five years, Sally Rockey? She departs NIH to assume a new position as director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture rockey2

Highly regarded by both NIH administration and the research community, Rockey reshaped NIH partnerships and communication with the research community, all while helping steer the NIH through a volatile and challenging budget climate. During her tenure, Rockey led the focus on the biomedical research workforce, managed the successful implementation of the 2009 stimulus bill, which infused the NIH with over $10 billion, and guided her office through difficulties resulting from 2013 government shutdown.

But perhaps most notably, Rockey improved relations and opened dialogue between NIH and the biomedical research community by starting and maintaining her  Rock Talk blog. Rocky’s clear messaging and requests for input from the community made Rock Talk not only a resource for accurate, up-to-date information but also a platform for the research community to help shape funding policies.

“Rock Talk has in many ways lifted the curtain to NIH decision making,” wrote Rockey in her farewell Sept. 11 post. While not all decisions she discussed on her blog were popular, the transparency in sharing how those decisions were reached was new and appreciated by most everyone. Rock Talk generated often heated discussion (who could forget the rollout of the new biosketch format?) not only on the blog but on social media. Though the conversations were challenging and critical, they often led NIH to modify policies based on reader input.

In her final post, Rockey says she expects the blog to continue in the spirit it was created – to “keep the conversation flowing, the research cranking, and the science hopping.”

Precision medicine enters a new phase

It takes a million people to discern the health strategies for one individual–at least, that’s the thinking behind the latest phase of the NIH’s Precision Medicine Initiative. This initiative was first proposed by NIH Director Francis Collins more than a decade ago. It became a reality this January, when President Obama announced his support of it in his State of the Union address, noting that its goal is “to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes, and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.”

To meet this challenge, Collins convened a working group to discuss how to create and manage a research cohort of more than one million Americans across the spectrum of diversity. That’s a large cohort to manage, so the group received input from a wide variety of stakeholders, and now they’ve published a report recommending the best ways to find the molecular, environmental, and behavioral factors that contribute to disease–as well as to find the most effective treatments. You can read the NIH’s statement on the Precision Medicine Initiative here, and see more at Science Insider.


Knight Cancer Institute researchers track metastasis with cell-free DNA

Researchers at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute recently found that sequencing the fragments of tumor DNA that circulate in blood may give a more accurate picture of a patient’s metastatic cancer than can be obtained from biopsies. Paul Spellman, Ph.D., professor of molecular and medical genetics at OHSU, led the study, which showed that whole-exome sequencing of cell-free DNA can find the same clinically relevant mutations identified in DNA from tumor tissue, and it can provide additional information about the evolution of a particular patient’s disease and how best to treat it. That’s significant because drawing blood to obtain cell-free DNA is less invasive and safer for patients than taking a biopsy of tumor tissue. The “liquid biopsy” approach makes it feasible to repeatedly sample tumor DNA over the course of treatment.

Taking biopsies at multiple metastatic sites often isn’t possible, for instance, when they are located in tissues that are difficult to access. Some lesions are too small to obtain enough tissue. And because tumors often consist of genetically heterogeneous cells, a biopsy needle can miss important mutations that arose outside the sampled area. Cell-free DNA in the blood stream, released from normal and cancerous cells when they die, offers an attractive way around these problems.

Researchers elsewhere have shown that whole-exome sequencing of cell-free DNA provides information comparable to that obtained from biopsies. But in previous work, tumor DNA made up an unusually large proportion of the cell-free DNA — from 33 to 65 percent — leaving it unclear how practical the approach could be. The OHSU researchers showed that it’s feasible in more typical cases when tumor DNA makes up only a small fraction of the cell-free DNA, less than 8 percent.

The study – “Exome sequencing of cell-free DNA from metastatic cancer patients identifies clinically actionable mutations distinct from primary disease” – was published last month in the open access journal PLOS ONE.


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