Three new early-career investigators join federally funded precision medicine initiative

Three new early-career investigators have been selected to be a part of the University of Kansas Medical Center's $11.5 million precision medicine-focused federal grant. The investigators study a range of diseases across the research spectrum, including pediatric clinical pharmacology, radiation oncology and biostatistics:

  • Leonidas Bantis, PhD, assistant professor, biostatistics and data science

Project title: Discovery, evaluation and clinical decision-making based on non-monotone biomarkers for the early detection of disease

  • Ryan Funk, PharmD, PhD, joint assistant professor, pharmacology, toxicology and therapeutics Project title: Metabolic markers of disease activity and therapeutic response in autoimmune arthritis
  • Gregory Gan, MD, PhD, assistant professor, radiation oncology Project title: The role of MK2 pathway on head and neck cancer epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition and tumor metastasis

The three scientists join the original faculty who were selected in January 2018:

  • Shellie Ellis, PhD, MA, assistant professor, population health Project title: Implementing precision medicine: Determinants of adoption in community oncology.
  • Deepika Polineni, MD, MPH, assistant professor, pulmonary and critical care Project title: Nasal lavage exosome analysis specifies therapeutic targets for precision treatment in cystic fibrosis.

The five-year grant is from the National Institutes of Health General Medical Sciences and supports a thematic, multidisciplinary center, referred to as a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), which strengthens an institution's capability in a specific area of research. The grant awarded to the medical center is focused on applying the concept of precision medicine across a variety of diseases.

According to Andrew Godwin, PhD, deputy director of The University of Kansas Cancer Center and director of the Kansas Institute for Precision Medicine (KIPM) COBRE, the investigators were selected via a highly competitive process.

More than 20 investigators between the medical center and the Lawrence campus applied for the KIPM COBRE's new openings. Eight scientists were chosen to submit a full grant application, and after internal review, five were sent to our external advisory committee for review and additional comments. Ultimately, we selected three faculty for full funding."

Andrew Godwin, PhD, deputy director, The University of Kansas Cancer Center

A major component of the COBRE is counseling junior researchers. Each investigator is mentored by two researchers who are well-established in their research careers. Alan Yu, MB, B.Chir., co-principal investigator and director of KU Medical Center's Kidney Institute, is leading the COBRE's mentoring program.

"Several of the early-career investigators are physician-scientists, which means they work in the clinic as well as in research. It is a challenging career path. For them to receive two dedicated mentors is an incredible benefit," said Dr. Yu.

Before the end of their grant cycle, which provides up to three years of funding, the investigators, with the help of their mentoring teams, will apply for federal RO1-type grants. The receipt of such a grant is a significant milestone in a researcher's career. As members are funded, new early-career investigators will be added to the team. Over time, the pool of precision medicine experts within the university will continue to grow.

The COBRE grant also allows new technology and equipment that will support the investigators research efforts. Called "research cores," the resources include biomarker validation, quantitative omics and biomedical engineering cores. Steve Soper, PhD, COBRE co-principal investigator and Foundation Distinguished Professor in the departments of Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Kansas, leads the biomedical engineering core.

"My hope is this is just the beginning of our efforts to grow our precision medicine pool of experts and the infrastructure at our institution," said Dr. Godwin. "My career has focused on biomedical discoveries to help bridge the gap between basic and clinical science in order to improve patient care, and through this COBRE grant we hope to elevate the national exposure of our faculty's research efforts that will continue to shape how patients are best treated now and in the future."

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