USC Awarded a $1.8 Million NIH Grant
The funds – intended to encourage collaborative research – will support the USC Interdisciplinary Center, which aims to explore new directions in stroke neurorehabilitation.
The new initiative, led by the National Center for Research Resources, is part of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research that was announced by NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni in 2002.
USC researchers included the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the department of biokinesiology and physical therapy, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and USC Annenberg School for Communication.
The 21 new P20 grants are intended to create what are being called Exploratory Centers for Interdisciplinary Research. In essence, they are planning grants designed to get people working together in teams.
If successful, these grants will eventually lead to the awarding of the more traditional and highly coveted NIH center grants.
“With these new Exploratory Centers, we hope to remove roadblocks to collaboration so that a true meeting of minds can take place that will broaden the scope of investigation, yield fresh and possibly unexpected insights and create solutions to biomedical problems that have not been solved using traditional, disciplinary approaches,” Zerhouni said.
The USC Interdisciplinary Center is aimed at exploring new directions in stroke neurorehabilitation, according to its principal investigator, Thomas McNeill, professor of cell and neurobiology and neurology at the Keck School.
“Each year in the United States, more than 700,000 people suffer a stroke, and nearly 450,000 survive with some form of neurologic impairment or disability,” O’Neill said.
With the population getting older, and obesity and heart disease on the rise, he added, it is estimated that the number of stroke patients will more then double over the next 50 years, making the need to develop new and innovative rehabilitation programs for stroke survivors “a national priority.”
The group will begin by focusing on rehabilitation strategies for the arm and hand in people who have survived a stroke.
Statistics indicate that almost 80 percent of people who suffer a first-time stroke have impairment of the upper limb that significantly impacts functional independence, health and quality of life for stroke survivors, McNeill said.
“We know that a recovery of function can occur, and that it requires retraining the brain to move the arm and hand in the correct fashion. Now we’re looking for better ways to enhance that recovery,” he said.
USC is collaborating with University of Texas researchers who have developed animal models of stroke that investigate the same motor skills strategies that USC is using with patients and will provide fresh insight into the cellular mechanisms that drive the recovery process, McNeill said.
“We will develop novel virtual-environment tests that can assess and rehabilitate human functional performance under a range of conditions that are not easily deliverable and controllable in the real world,” he said.
McNeill’s group will link its clinical and experimental studies with USC’s bioinformatics group headed by Stan Azen, professor of preventive medicine in the Keck School, in order to develop new data mining tools for sharing and analyzing data between projects.
“We are also investigating whether there are certain molecules in the brain that help the injured neurons grow, and applying this basic knowledge to combined pharmacological and behavioral interventions that will enhance recovery of function in stroke survivors,” McNeill said.
Carolee Winstein, associate professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy in the Independent Health Professions, is McNeill’s co-principal investigator. She believes that the interdisciplinary research paradigm being encouraged by the NIH is crucial for rehabilitation in the 21st century.
“It is well known that the translation of basic science discoveries to clinical practice through a systematic progression of developmental steps can take anywhere from seven to 11 years,” Winstein said. “If the pre-clinical human studies can be conducted in parallel with the animal studies, we may be able to effectively reduce the bench to bedside translation time by 50 percent.”
But that reduction will require a significant effort, she added.
“For our center to be effective, we will need to foster the environment to encourage the cross-fertilization of ideas between the clinical and basic sciences,” Winstein said. “This is the major challenge for us, but also a tremendous opportunity to reap the rewards of a truly interdisciplinary collaboration.”
USC participants in the center also include Michael Arbib, department of computer science, USC Viterbi School of Engineering; Helena Chui, department of neurology, Keck School; Margaret McLaughlin, Integrated Media Systems Center, USC Annenberg School for Communication; Albert Rizzo, Integrated Media Systems Center, USC Viterbi School of Engineering; Nicolas Schweighofer, department of biokinesiology and physical therapy, USC Independent Health Professions.
For more information about the NIH Roadmap, go to http://www.nihroadmap.nih.gov.
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