Weill Cornell researchers awarded Grand Challenges Explorations grants

Published on November 3, 2012 at 6:16 AM · No Comments

Weill Cornell Medical College announced today that it is a Grand Challenges Explorations winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Researchers at Weill Cornell have been awarded three research grants totaling more than $1.5 million. Weill Cornell's Dr. Juan R. Cubillos-Ruiz, a postdoctoral research associate in medicine in the laboratory of Dean Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher, will pursue an innovative global health and development research project titled, "Tailored Nanodevices to Understand Resistance Against HIV," Dr. Carl Nathan, chairman of microbiology and immunology and R.A. Rees Pritchett Professor of Microbiology, will investigate "Sequestration and asymmetric distribution of irreversibly oxidized proteins in Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb)" and Dr. Kyu Rhee, associate professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology, will examine "Mining metabolosomes: A biochemical blueprint to new drug targets against non-replicating Mtb."

"Weill Cornell is honored to be selected as a multiple award winner of Grand Challenges Explorations grants for our groundbreaking research initiatives to combat devastating diseases like HIV and TB," says Dr. Glimcher, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medical College and provost for medical affairs of Cornell University. "We thank the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for continuing its generous support of our pioneering and innovative researchers whose work is truly making a difference on a global level."

"Our research team is thrilled to receive this prestigious award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in support of our HIV research efforts," says Dr. Cubillos-Ruiz, a senior postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Glimcher. "We aim to use cutting-edge nanotechnology tools to unveil the biological mechanisms that some individuals have to exert powerful resistance against HIV. We hope our novel research strategy paves the way for designing and developing a functional cure for HIV."

"Three to four people die of tuberculosis each minute. Dr. Rhee and I sincerely thank the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its dedication to improving the mortality rate and health of people in our nation and around the globe with TB through innovative research projects," says Dr. Nathan. "With the Foundation's help, we hope to improve our understanding of TB and find more effective and faster-acting drug therapies for TB with shorter treatment cycles."

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) funds individuals worldwide who are taking innovative approaches to some of the world's toughest and persistent global health and development challenges. GCE invests in the early stages of bold ideas that have real potential to solve the problems people in the developing world face every day. Dr. Cubillos-Ruiz, Dr. Nathan and Dr. Rhee's projects are three of over 80 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9 grants announced today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"Investments in innovative global health research are already paying off," said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery and Translational Sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "We continue to be impressed by the novelty and innovative spirit of Grand Challenges Explorations projects and are enthusiastic about this exciting research. These investments hold real potential to yield new solutions to improve the health of millions of people in the developing world, and ensure that everyone has the chance to live a healthy productive life."

To receive funding, Dr. Cubillos-Ruiz, Dr. Nathan and Dr. Rhee and other Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a creative idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas that included agriculture development, immunization and communications. Applications for the current open round, Grand Challenges Explorations Round 10, will be accepted through November 7, 2012.

Dr. Cubillos-Ruiz and his team's Phase I $100,000 funded research project will use a highly innovative nanopore-based assay to identify novel biomarkers reflecting the multifactorial processes that trigger potent HIV suppression. Dissecting these unique molecular signatures may enable the research team to design and develop improved clinical strategies for enhancing resistance against HIV. According to Dr. Cubillos-Ruiz, a small proportion of HIV infected individuals called "elite controllers" demonstrate "spontaneous" long-term control over the virus in the absence of treatment. However, the biological mechanisms underlying this important phenomenon remain poorly understood. Dr. Ruiz will work in close collaboration with other scientists at Weill Cornell, The Methodist Hospital in Houston and The Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard.

Dr. Nathan and his research team's Phase II $646,688 funded project will test their hypothesis that tuberculosis is able to exit latency by distributing damaged proteins to a senescent cell lineage, while more functional proteins are diverted to a lineage with full replication potential. His team believes regulating this post-latency cell division could be the target of novel drug therapies. Phase I of Dr. Nathan's study used biochemical methods and time lapse photomicroscopy to demonstrate that Mtb accumulates irreversibly oxidized proteins when its replication is blocked. These proteins then form small aggregates that fuse into larger ones. One member of the progeny pair retains the aggregates when cell division resumes. The new Phase II study will identify genes that control this process. Dr. Nathan's research team includes Weill Cornell's Julien Vaubourgeix and Dr. Gang Lin.

Dr. Rhee's Phase II $782,724 funded research project will test the theory that tuberculosis utilizes metabolosomes, which are protein-based metabolic structures, to enter into, maintain and exit from latency. Understanding how metabolosomes work will aid in development of drugs that target TB. This project's Phase I research demonstrated that "latent" or non-replicating Mtb undergo a metabolic remodeling that is accompanied by the reversible formation of enzyme-based protein structures (metabolosomes). In Phase II, Rhee and colleagues will characterize and test the essentiality of a prototypic metabolosome as a potential target whose inhibition could lead to development of new and highly needed treatment-shortening drugs.

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