Brody Brothers Endowment provides bridge to future funding

Researchers at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine aim to discover prevention and treatment protocols for many prevalent diseases which represent significant health challenges among the population of eastern North Carolina. Awards from the Brody Brothers Foundation Endowment Fund are providing a bridge to further their work.

The foundation committee approved $170,710 this academic year, divided among four grant proposals investigating cancer, cardiometabolic disease, cardiovascular disease and COVID-19.

The fund provides supplemental support for researchers to continue projects and make discoveries in the areas of cancer, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and other prevalent health problems in eastern North Carolina.

Kelsey Fisher-Wellman, an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology, is trying to understand the role of mitochondria in colorectal cancer. His research was selected for a Brody Brothers Foundation Endowment Fund award.

Kelsey Fisher-Wellman, an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology, is trying to understand the role of mitochondria in colorectal cancer. His research was selected for a Brody Brothers Foundation Endowment Fund award.(ECU photo by Rhett Butler)

One goal of the grants is to assist faculty in generating data for new extramural funding applications or resubmission of an extramural funding application.

“Since 2017, these awards have produced a 9.79-fold return on investment through additional external awards that were related to the original projects,” saidRuss Price, director of nonclinical research operations at BSOM Office of Research and Graduate Studies. “Funding from sponsors enables BSOM faculty and learners to conduct discovery-based research that advances our knowledge of diseases and basic biological processes. It also helps us better understand the challenges in health care delivery and enables us to develop better patient care strategies and treatments.”

This year’s funding includes a grant for Kelsey Fisher-Wellman’s colon cancer study in his lab at ECU’s Diabetes and Obesity Institute. Fisher-Wellman, an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology, is trying to understand the role of mitochondria in colorectal cancer.

He said colon cancer is unique from other cancers in that colon tumors accumulate mutations in mitochondrial DNA. How these mutations impact the development of colon cancer remains unknown. A primary focus of this project is to explore how alterations in mitochondrial metabolism contribute to tumor biology in the colon with the hopes of identifying vulnerabilities that can be targeted with various pharmacological or dietary interventions.

“Each year (more than) 51,000 Americans lose their lives to colorectal cancer (CRC). In the advanced, metastatic setting, CRC-approved therapies are typically not curative,” Fisher-Wellman said. “Novel strategies are needed to treat advanced CRC. The significance of the current project is that it investigates a novel mechanism by which CRC growth and progression are supported via mitochondrial remodeling.”

Fisher-Wellman said funding from the endowment will allow his team to develop mouse models needed to test the contribution of the mitochondria in colon cancer. The data will be critical to his lab in competing for external grants from federal funding agencies.

Additional ECU projects to receive funding this year are:

Cardiovascular disease

David A. Tulis, principal investigator and associate professor in the Department of Integrated Physiology, along with co-investigator Kyle Mansfield in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, aim to determine whether a recently discovered cell membrane receptor, GPR68, has the capacity to control abnormal blood vessel growth, a significant element of cardiovascular disease.

This work is particularly important as cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer of individuals in North Carolina, the United States and the world. Tulis said through their research efforts, they hope to expand their knowledge of this receptor and its contribution to cardiovascular diseases, including its potential therapeutic use, and provide evidence for more in-depth study.

Cardiometabolic disease

Paul Bolin, chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, is the primary investigator of a project working to construct culturally-tailored interventions to achieve health equity in the diagnosis and treatment of cardiometabolic disease — a risk factor of severe COVID-19 — among insured, low-wage workers in rural North Carolina.

The multidisciplinary team includes co-investigators Linda Bolin, associate professor in the College of Nursing, Ashley Burch, assistant professor in the Department of Health Services and Information Management, and Paul Shackelford, clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and research professor in the Department of Internal Medicine.

This investigation furthers the work of the SERVIRE (Stopping Early Reversible Vital organ Injury in Rural ENC) project. SERVIRE was started during the COVID-19 pandemic to identify and initiate care for risk factors of severe COVID-19 in vulnerable laborers in the region. To date, the team has screened and/or vaccinated nearly 3,000 workers in eastern North Carolina.

Since receiving the Brody grant, the team has been awarded two other extramural grants totaling $200,000 to continue this work.

COVID-19 and long COVID-19

Research conducted by Jeffrey Eells, associate professor of anatomy and cell biology, and co-investigators Shaw Akula, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Srinivas Sriramula, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, aims to determine whether blocking the kinin B1 receptor at the start of a SARS-CoV-2 infection could protect from both acute, severe disease as well as the persistent effects of COVID-19.

Persistent symptoms following COVID-19, or long COVID, are common. In their research using a preclinical model of COVID-19, the faculty members have found persistently elevated expression of the kinin B1 receptor in the lungs and brain, as well as fibrosis in the lungs and cognitive deficits.

Eells said their preliminary results suggest that this receptor is involved in the long-term effects of infection. Currently, no therapies are shown to protect from the persistent effects of COVID-19. This project will test the feasibility of targeting this receptor as a novel therapeutic to prevent or attenuate long COVID symptoms.

The Brody Brothers Foundation was established in 1999 when the Brody family of eastern North Carolina donated $7 million to fund research projects at the medical school. Since awarding its first grants in 2005, the foundation has provided more than $2 million to support work related to diseases that most impact the lives of North Carolinians.

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