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Research success continues for COBRE in protein structure, function

Thursday, October 09, 2014

LAWRENCE – The deep study of complex biomedical problems requires stable, long-term research funding. Robert Hanzlik, a professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Kansas, understands that better than most.

In 2002, the National Institutes of Health awarded Hanzlik a five-year, $10 million grant to create the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in Protein Structure and Function (COBRE-PSF). The success of Hanzlik’s team, which included Mary Lou Michaelis, now-emeritus professor of pharmacology and toxicology, led to a second five-year, $10 million grant in 2008.

Recently, Hanzlik learned that COBRE-PSF will receive an additional $5.6 million in funding over the next five years. Since 2002, the center and its members have brought more than $69 million in new external research funding to the state, assisted by matching funds from KU and the Kansas Board of Regents.

“This is a highly competitive process,” Hanzlik said. “Only about half of the phase I COBRE programs receive phase II funding. In obtaining phase III funding, our program is part of a select group nationally.”

The center fosters health-related basic research around a single scientific theme. By better understanding the structure and function of proteins present in cells, and the way they interact, researchers gain a deeper understanding of how proteins carry out the work of the cell. Scientists can use this information to develop new and improved drugs.

In addition to establishing state-of-the-art core labs for protein research, the center also accelerates the careers of outstanding junior faculty through regional workshops and individual mentoring by senior faculty. Participants include faculty from KU, the KU Medical Center, Kansas State University and Wichita State University.

“The advanced instrumentation in the core labs is crucial for protein research and invaluable for KU,” Hanzlik said. “But even more valuable in the long run are the bioscience faculty who we've recruited, nurtured and `graduated’ to independent success through the COBRE.”

One of these early COBRE-PSF researchers, he notes, is Bill Picking, who returned to KU this year as a Foundation Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry and director of the Higuchi Biosciences Center.

Hanzlik counts 20 junior faculty at the four campuses whose careers got a head start with his center’s support. Fifteen have received tenure so far and have achieved independent research support from the NIH. Nearly 20 more have participated in research and pilot project grants. Center-supported researchers have produced more than 270 peer-reviewed publications, a strong indicator of the broader effects of the work.

“The nature of research is changing,” Hanzlik said. “Single-investigator projects are still important, but what's also needed is more research collaboration among faculty, departments and universities. That requires shared facilities, such as core labs. We’re training a cadre of researchers who are accustomed to this approach. To me, strong core labs are the flags on a flagship university such as KU.”

Phase III will be the final round of NIH funding for the center, Hanzlik said. It will support and strengthen the three core labs and support six new faculty-directed research pilot projects in each of the five years.

“COBRE-PSF empowers younger researchers to get involved in projects they could never do on their own,” Hanzlik said. “That builds confidence and competence, and helps ensure the continuity of biomedical research in Kansas.”

KU hosts two other NIH-funded COBRE programs on the Lawrence campus: the Center for Molecular Analysis of Disease Pathways and the Center for Cancer Experimental Therapeutics. At KU Medical Center, the three COBRE programs are Novel Approaches for the Control of Microbial Pathogens, Nuclear Receptors in Liver Health and Disease, and Molecular Regulation of Cell Development and Differentiation.