“Fast Forward” strategic research effort yields new focus on protein folding, microbiome, epigenetics & more

What do misfolded proteins, microbes in our bodies, and DNA “switches” have in common?

They’re all important to human health and disease – and the Medical School’s researchers are among the world’s leaders in studying all of them.

Now, all three areas of research will get an added boost starting July 1, through funding from the Medical School’s Strategic Research Initiative.

Known as “Fast Forward” for its emphasis on accelerating progress by fostering collaboration among researchers, the initiative has helped the school’s researchers come together in new ways to work on important areas of biomedical science – even beyond those chosen for initial funding.

At a May 21 forum, senior associate dean for research Steve Kunkel , Ph.D., described how the Fast Forward process begun one year ago with 10 concepts inspired by hundreds of researchers from many fields to work together on proposals for funding.

An external review panel, and the Research Board of Directors made up of the school’s department chairs and center/institute directors, examined each proposal carefully and recommended that three receive funding. They are:

Protein Folding Diseases: An initiative led by Henry Paulson, M.D., Ph.D., and Andrew Lieberman, M.D., Ph.D., that involves many researchers across U-M who study how many different diseases arise from abnormal protein accumulation and disturbances in protein “quality control” within the body. The funding will help them work together in new ways, provide tools to aid their work, and bring new researchers to U-M to round out the expertise already here.

Host Microbiome initiative: This effort will build on U-M’s already strong effort to study the bacteria and other microbes that live inside the human body and the health care environment. Led by Harry Mobley, Ph.D., and Vincent Young, M.D., Ph.D., and involving 51 researchers from a wide variety of areas, the initiative will use its Fast Forward funding to support specific research projects, and create tools and training to support existing and newly recruited researchers.

Epigenetics core: During the proposal review process, the importance of enhanced resources for epigenetics work became clear. So, to help UMMS scientists from all areas study why and how gene activity is turned “on” and “off” in different diseases, part of the Fast Forward funding will support the creation of a new shared research resource, called an Epigenetics “core”.

Even as these three initiatives take shape, Kunkel noted, researchers who put forth other proposals are leveraging that work to apply for external funding based on their newfound collaboration. “All ten scientific concepts became seed crystals, coalescing faculty to draft proposals, and moving them forward toward submitting multi-investigator proposals,” he noted.

Dean James O. Woolliscroft, M.D., says, “University of Michigan Medical School faculty are nationally and internationally renowned for their scientific expertise. Building on this foundation, Fast Forward is envisioned as a means to establish UMMS as the international leaders in selected areas of great scientific promise.”

Kunkel also pointed to other efforts by the Medical School Office of Research to facilitate all research, including streamlining the clinical trials process, strengthening research cores and information technology resources for researchers, and mentoring researchers applying for grants from the National Institutes of Health.

In the face of cutbacks in available federal research funding, these strategic investments position the Medical School’s research community to make the most of opportunities.

The keynote speaker at the May 21 forum, former Department of Internal Medicine chair and University of Pennsylvania professor Bill Kelley, M.D., who served on the Fast Forward review panel, echoed the hopeful sentiment. He also looked back on another chapter in UMHS history, when he was directly involved in the effort to build what is now called University Hospital as a strategic investment in the institution’s future.

“Despite the dark clouds, the hardships, and the recessions, all of which will come and go, your course is set to move into the most elite” among academic medical centers, Kelley said. “You have the resources, the talent, and are empowered.”