UA Center Receives Nearly $1 Million from NIH

The Arizona Center for the Biology of Complex Diseases has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health ot identify predictors of asthma.
Jan. 8, 2010
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The Arizona Center for the Biology of Complex Diseases, or ABCD, provides an interface that catalyzes discussions, promotes unconventional thinking and seeks to establish new experimental and conceptual paradigms. Arizona Research Laboratories initiated this effort, with financial support from the office of the Vice President for Research, BIO5 and the Colleges of Agriculture, Life Sciences, Engineering and Science. 

Arizona Research Laboratories, or ARL, at the University of Arizona, is a group of researchers solving critical scientific problems and generating knowledge for the future. The organization's structure and values promote innovation through dynamic interdisciplinary collaborations.  ARL has been a leader in interdisciplinary science and research for 30 years.

The Arizona Center for the Biology of Complex Diseases, or ABCD, brings together a team of multi-disciplinary complex disease-oriented scientists who excel in environmental studies, immunological and clinical phenotyping, genetic epidemiology, population genetics, epigenetics, functional genomics in human and animal models, and development.
The Arizona Center for the Biology of Complex Diseases, or ABCD, brings together a team of multi-disciplinary complex disease-oriented scientists who excel in environmental studies, immunological and clinical phenotyping, genetic epidemiology, population genetics, epigenetics, functional genomics in human and animal models, and development.

The Arizona Center for the Biology of Complex Diseases at the University of Arizona has received a $958,544 National Institutes of Health Challenge grant to identify epigenetic predictors of asthma in neonates, newborn infants less than four weeks old. 

This unique multi-disciplinary effort is spearheaded by Dr. Donata Vercelli, who is renowned for her work in allergies and asthma genetics and is director of the center, also known as ABCD.

ABCD was incubated by Arizona Research Laboratories, or ARL, in the fall of 2007 and formally launched with seed funding in spring of 2008 to study the intricate interactions of environmental, developmental and genetic factors that contribute to complex human diseases such as cancer, asthma, diabetes and Alzheimer's. 

The substantial funding already secured by ABCD and its preliminary research findings represent a phenomenal success in a very brief period of time. Four projects are underway at ABCD:

  • Epigenetic predictors of asthma in neonates
  • A biomarker study to define how dogs present in the home near the time of a child's birth decrease her/his risk for asthma.
  • Genetics of colorectal cancer;
  • Gene and environment interactions in lung disease susceptibility.

The approach to complex diseases at ABCD reflects Dr. Vercelli's research philosophy.

"ABCD recognizes that complex human diseases can only be understood as interactions among genetic, environmental and developmental factors, and are not amenable to simple experimental solutions," she said.

"Research at ABCD focuses on the biological interface among distinct but interacting components, which is the defining feature of complex diseases," Dr. Vercelli added. "Thus, ABCD is as unique as the diseases it seeks to decipher." 

Using asthma as a prototype of complex diseases, Dr. Vercelli added: "Asthma clearly shows evidence of genes that work differently in different environments at distinct times in life."

Dr. Vercelli noted that the team – whose members includes Dr. Marilyn Halonen, a UA pharmacology professor at the Arizona Respiratory Center – recently found that the incidence of asthma is much reduced amongst children who are raised in households with dogs. 

"We suspect the presence of dogs may be influencing genetic factors that in turn alter lung function and development early in life," Vercelli said.

She noted one ABCD-supported project led by Dr. Serrine Lau, a UA pharmacologist, is meant to aid in the discovery of tell-tale modifications in blood proteins that might reveal how genes and the environment interact in asthma.

"The grant we just received, on the other hand, will help us search for epigenetic signatures of asthma in neonates," Dr. Vercelli said. "Infants at higher risk of asthma are those in whom disease prevention would be most necessary and effective."

In addition to serving as director of the ABCD, Dr. Vercelli is a professor of cell biology and the director of the Functional Genomics Laboratory at the Arizona Respiratory Center. She has a degree in medicine from the University of Florence, Italy, and has been for several years on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Vercelli's and ABCD's perspective on complex diseases differs from most current approaches to medical research in that, instead of emphasizing a single cause of disease, ABCD brings together and connects complex disease-oriented scientists who excel in environmental studies, immunological and clinical phenotyping, genetic epidemiology, population genetics, epigenetics, functional genomics in human and animal models, and development.

The value of ABCD's biologically integrated approach is clearly recognized by the NIH. 

Less than 5 percent of the 20,000 stimulus proposals submitted to the NIH have been funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. 

ABCD's are two of only six special Challenge grants to be awarded to the University of Arizona by NIH to-date, and the center has another Challenge grant in the review process and may soon be awarded a third Challenge grant.

"Arizona Research Laboratories is proud to have launched and to continue to support Dr. Donata Vercelli, who is a pioneer in the biological integration of complex diseases," said Dr. Michael Cusanovich, the director of the laboratories, known as ARL.

"She and her collaborators are helping to solve critical medical problems caused by complex diseases that afflict human health worldwide," Cusanovich said. 

"Her interdisciplinary expertise is reflected in the grants she has already received for ABCD along with her seminal research integrating her expertise with diverse fields such as genetics, toxicology and pharmacology," he added.

ABCD's graduate colloquium, "Problems in Complex Disease Biology" returns in Spring of 2010. The colloquium was launched in the Spring of 2008 and has received enthusiastic feedback from both students and faculty.