School of Medicine Awarded $98 Million

West Campus to support focus on critical breakthroughs

Dr. Robert J. AlpernAt a time when Yale is investing heavily in its infrastructure for science and medicine, funding from the federal government makes a big difference. The current economic stimulus program—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) signed into law on February 17, 2009—is bringing vital research dollars to Yale and accelerating important projects in many fields.

In December 2009, Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., announced that the Yale School of Medicine had been awarded close to $98 million in ARRA grants to fund new research over the next two fiscal years. A notable twenty-five percent of the 775 applications submitted by School of Medicine faculty were approved; another forty-one proposals totaling $60 million for construction projects and high-end instrumentation are still under review.

Six of the largest grants, totaling $21 million, were awarded under ARRA’s Grand Opportunities program, established to support high-impact, large-scale projects that accelerate critical breakthroughs.

Shrikant Mane, Ph.D.

Five of the six projects are the work of faculty in Yale’s neurogenomics program and depend on the resources of its new Center for Genome Analysis, which opened on the West Campus in January under the direction of Richard Lifton, M.D., and Shrikant Mane, Ph.D.

These grants affirm Yale’s investment in the Center and the technology required to conduct large-scale studies built around DNA sequencing. Its thirteen Illumina sequencing machines increase Yale’s capacity to conduct high-throughput analysis of DNA samples, a service that is available to researchers throughout the University.

Five neurogenomics research projects to benefit from stimulus grants

The five neurogenomics projects seek to unlock deeper understanding of a wide range of neurological diseases and disorders from a genetic perspective. David Hafler, M.D., will lead a new study of genetic risk factors for multiple sclerosis (MS) using the largest available collection of samples from MS patients. To date, genome-wide association studies of MS have focused on relatively common genetic variants that confer risk for the disease. Leveraging the additional high-throughput power of the Illumina platform, Dr. Hafler will probe the role of rare variants in the disease. Murat Günel, M.D., will sequence the complete protein-coding regions in 250 families to discover recessive genes underlying structural brain disorders, which have been implicated in autism, epilepsy, and mental retardation.

In a third neurogenomic study, Nenad Sestan, M.D., Ph.D., with additional support from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, will compile a comprehensive atlas of gene regulation and expression in a number of human brain regions as the brain develops, from its embryonic stages to adolescence and adulthood.

Nenad Sestan, M.D., Ph.D.

Matthew State, M.D., Ph.D., is taking a close look at two molecules—CNTNAP2 and piccolo—to find rare variants that may help explain these genes’ role in autism spectrum disorders. Finally, Joel Gelernter, M.D., will use both Affymetrix and Illumina microarrays in a genome-wide association study of cocaine dependence, to be followed by an analysis of genetic copy-number variations on a subset of cocaine-dependent subjects and controls.

Cindy Crusto, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychiatry, will lead a sixth Grand Opportunities grant examining the multiple social determinants of the health of young children.

Other ARRA grants to support additional medical research

In addition to the Grand Opportunities grants, the School of Medicine received two large training grants and thirteen Challenge grants. These awards address a number of the fifteen “challenge areas” identified by the NIH, including stem cells, translational science, clinical research, regenerative medicine, biomarkers, and information technology, among others.

These projects focus on specific knowledge gaps, scientific opportunities, new technologies, data generation, or research methods that would benefit from an influx of funds to quickly advance the area in significant ways. Research and disease areas at Yale that will benefit from ARRA funding include cardiovascular medicine, cancer, diabetes, infectious disease, mental illness and brain disorders, substance abuse, digestive, kidney, and urological diseases, asthma and emphysema, pediatrics, ophthalmology, and obstetrics and gynecology.

The sharp increase in funding under ARRA presents a few challenges. The ideal scenario for researchers is one that provides steady, predictable increases in the NIH budget that keep pace with inflation and allow scientists to seize on new opportunities as they arise. In the case of ARRA, grant recipients are required to spend funds over a 20-month timeframe. Although it is possible that this period will be extended, the ARRA program will not be renewed. Funded projects will have to secure new support to sustain them after the ARRA funds are expended.

“We must anticipate this moment and be prepared to redouble our efforts,” said Dean Alpern. “That will mean aggressively submitting grants and encouraging Congress to support predictable funding in future years.”

December 1, 2009