$2.1 million in NIH funding awarded to UNR Med researchers to advance esophageal research and treatments

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A group photo of four researchers on the Cobine lab team, posing outdoors.

Caroline Cobine Ph.D., assistant professor, department of physiology and cell biology, and a team of researchers at UNR Med were recently awarded a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the NIH. From left to right: Karen Hannigan, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow; Brian Perrino, Ph.D., associate professor; Caroline Cobine, Ph.D., assistant professor; Emer Ni Bhraonain, B.Sc., graduate student (CMPP). Photo by Brin Reynolds/UNR Med.

Caroline Cobine Ph.D., assistant professor, department of physiology and cell biology, and a team of researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine (UNR Med) were recently awarded a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore the mechanisms controlling motility in the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).

Cobine and colleagues' research will provide greater understanding of how the LES functions under normal and disease states, and will help identify new therapies for medical, non-surgical treatments for acid reflux, the common and chronic disease that occurs when stomach acid flows into and irritates the esophagus. The research will also study the rare disorder of achalasia, which makes it difficult for food and liquid to pass from the esophagus into the stomach.  

Up to 20% of people living in Western countries regularly have problems like heartburn or regurgitation, according to the NIH. "The LES is found at the junction between the esophagus and stomach and provides an important barrier for preventing the reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus," said Cobine. "A chronic form of acid reflux is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can damage the inner lining of the esophagus and lead to esophageal cancer. Loss of normal function of the LES can result in GERD, or achalasia. It is still not yet fully known how the LES loses its normal function."  

The research team at UNR Med, led by Cobine, includes, Brian Perrino, Ph.D., associate professor and co-investigator; Kenton Sanders, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of physiology and cell biology; Karen Hannigan, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow; and Bernard Drumm, Ph.D., an international collaborator from the Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) in Ireland. The team's pre-clinical study will provide greater understanding of the mechanisms that regulate the contractile tone of the LES muscles and provide critical information for the identification of potential therapeutic targets for the treatment of gastrointestinal diseases. Research findings will be presented at national and international meetings and published in academic peer-reviewed journals.  

"With the support of the NIH, our scientists will be able to advance the understanding of the cellular and molecular signals that underlie the normal functioning of the LES and the esophagus, as well as other gastrointestinal regions; these research topics are a major focus of the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology." said Lucia Notterpek, Ph.D., associate dean for biomedical research at UNR Med. "This significant, competitive funding from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases is evidence that UNR Med faculty are at the forefront of innovative solutions to improve human health."  

The NIH is the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, investing more than $32 billion each year to enhance life, and reduce illness and disability. NIH funded research has led to breakthroughs and new treatments, helping people live longer, healthier lives, and building the research foundation that drives discovery.  

"We're very proud that Dr. Cobine's important contributions to gastrointestinal research are recognized as having transformative potential by the NIH," said UNR Med Acting Dean Melissa Piasecki, M.D. "Cobine's esophageal research is poised to help  improve the treatment of  gastrointestinal issues that impact millions of people."  

UNR Med's biomedical scientists are internationally recognized in the fields of neuroscience, infectious diseases, reproductive endocrinology, muscular dystrophy, cardiovascular physiology and gastrointestinal diseases, among other fields. UNR Med researchers have generated over $318 million in research funding over the past decade, supporting research that is improving science and enhancing the quality of life for many. In the 2022 edition of U.S. News & World Report's Best Graduate Schools, UNR Med earned a top 25 spot out of nearly 170 medical schools with over $186,000 in grant funding per full time faculty member.

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The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Released: Tuesday October 19, 2021 @ 8:00 AM