Fall 2012
NIH grant promotes development of junior researchers

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Chris von Bartheld at microscope

Neuroscientist Chris von Bartheld, M.D., is principal investigator for the School of Medicine's Cell Biology Center COBRE grant and works in collaboration with Grant Mastick, Ph.D., of the University of Nevada, Reno's biology department, in an effort to develop synergy between research groups studying cell signaling. Photo by Matt Lush.

Builds collaborative research between departments

By Anne Pershing

A recent $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health created a new Center of Biomedical Research Excellence, or COBRE, that focuses on the cell biology of signaling across membranes.

The new Cell Biology Center is training junior biomedical researchers from the University of Nevada School of Medicine and the University of Nevada, Reno to conduct research to better understand how cells and cellular compartments communicate with each other and how defects in such communication could trigger disease.

The Cell Biology Center is only the third COBRE grant in Nevada; the other active COBRE grant is on "Smooth Muscle Plasticity." While Nevada's previous COBRE grants resided within the School of Medicine, the new center also involves the University's College of Science.

The program director and principal investigator for the project is School of Medicine neuroscientist Chris von Bartheld, M.D., who is assisted by University of Nevada, Reno neurobiologist Grant Mastick, Ph.D.

According to Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D., dean of the medical school, the COBRE program is an outstanding example of the important research that can be conducted by scientists with diverse backgrounds.

"The collaboration between the School of Medicine and the University's Biology Department is a strong feature of the program and speaks to the type of faculty expertise that can come together from across the campus to do good science."

Schwenk added that one of the most important aspects of the COBRE grant is the way it supports the recruitment, mentoring and development of junior scientists who will become the leaders of tomorrow.

"The COBRE support is particularly critical as part of our larger plan to invest in and expand the University of Nevada School of Medicine's entire research enterprise throughout the state," he said.

He explained that the COBRE grant has special value as a potential source of translational research that will take basic science discoveries into the clinical setting to actually change patient care.

Von Bartheld has worn many hats at the medical school following his arrival in 1997. He has advanced from co-director to director in the neuroscience course for medical students, and from being a member of the institutional review board for human subject research to vice chair and, briefly, acting chair of this board.

"The new COBRE grant was several years in the making. I had watched how multiple previous attempts failed to get a center grant funded and my formula for success eventually paid off," he said.

synapse containing a radiolabeled neurotrophic factor

The worm-like black "chains" in this developing synapse are a couple of silver grains that show that this synapse contains a radiolabeled neurotrophic factor that has transported from the eye to the brain in a chicken embryo. Photo courtesy Chris von Bartheld.

The key novelties in the grant proposal were to integrate the research of scientists in the College of Science with the research of biomedical researchers at the School of Medicine.

"I carefully selected my junior faculty from several different departments and colleges for high quality and for evidence of exceptional past achievements," said von Bartheld, who earned his medical degree from the University of Göttingen in Germany and trained as a postdoctoral fellow and research assistant professor at the University of Washington.

"One major goal of these center grants is to make junior faculty more competitive in garnering federal research funds, so the quality of those junior faculty are the key to success. The center also provides infrastructure support and requires a detailed faculty development and mentoring plan."

Von Bartheld admits that the administrative workload can be daunting and credits both his co-director, Mastick, and biology lecturer Amy Altick, Ph.D., for their roles in successfully implementing the new center.

All three of them also lead Nevada's chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, an organization that educates the public about neuroscience and promotes brain awareness.

Mastick said that the grant has proven to be extremely beneficial for the University and medical school.

"A major goal of the COBRE is to continue to strengthen the research interactions between the various biomedical researchers across campus," he said.

"Chris is leading our effort to develop synergy between the biology research groups in cell signaling and collaborating with medical school research and resources."

Mastick explained that the COBRE funding is providing new facilities, but just as importantly, it is already creating exciting new ideas and discussions.

"The projects in both the biology department and the School of Medicine are led by productive junior faculty emerging as nationally competitive researchers," he said.

And von Bartheld describes the dual-site arrangement with the University of Nevada School of Medicine and College of Science as a "win-win" situation.

"The basic scientists learn from the biomedical researchers about clinical and translational aspects and disease context and the biomedical researchers learn from the basic scientists about the use of novel, simple model organisms. In the past decade, these new approaches have become more important tools to gain insights in cellular function and to tackle human diseases."