By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian
The state’s Research Challenge Fund is helping university researchers do innovative work related to energy-efficient electronics, electrochemical energy storage and cancer genomics.
The fund, under the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s Division of Science and Research, recently announced that it was awarding a total of more than $4 million to three projects at West Virginia University and Marshall University.
In 2002, the West Virginia Legislature created the Research Challenge Fund as a way to offer seed funding for new research in the state. These five-year grants are designed for projects that result in the development of research centers and start-up businesses, help with economic development and workforce advancement, and improve education in West Virginia.
Kelly Merritt, communications manager for the commission’s Division of Science and Research, said the money for the Research Challenge Fund comes specifically from a portion of the lottery revenues at the state’s four racetracks.
Researchers at all four-year higher education institutions in the state are eligible and encouraged to submit applications, and a review team looks at all the submissions, he said.
“It is very competitive,” Merritt said. “There’s a limited amount of money.”
Twenty-six applications were submitted for the third round of grants that were recently awarded, he said. Out of those applicants, three programs were selected to each get $1.35 million, with the funding starting July 1 of this year and decreasing over a period of five years.
The funding is set up this way because researchers typically need more money in the early years of their projects. At the end of five years, the grant recipients will create reports, which will show what came out of the state’s investments and if there was success in bringing in additional businesses, Merritt said.
The Research Challenge Fund awarded $8.4 million worth of grants in 2002 during the first round. This investment in research led to $20 million in external funding, the creation of five start-up businesses and also 10 patent applications.
With the help of this seed money, the researchers were able to gain additional funding from federal and private entities, which is the idea of the grant program, Merritt said.
He said those who received awards for the second round in 2007 are working on reports. A final report about this research funded by the state of West Virginia should be completed by the end of the year and presented to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the Legislature.
The West Virginia Cancer Genomics Network is one of the projects that was recently awarded a Research Challenge Grant.
Dr. Richard Niles, professor and chairman of biochemistry and microbiology and senior associate dean for research and graduate education at Marshall University, is the overall principal investigator for the study. He said the network has three separate sites, with Marshall as the lead institution and the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center at WVU and Charleston Area Medical Center as its two partners.
Dr. William Petros, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at WVU and associate director for Anticancer Drug Development in the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, is a co-principal investigator. He said the network team consists of a total of about 20 people.
The Cancer Genomics Network was initially started a little more than two years ago thanks to a large grant from the National Institutes of Health, Niles said. That money was used to work out all the logistics, decide what types of cancers to focus on, determine what common database to use for the network, and begin processing some of the tumor samples.
Then the team applied for and won a Research Challenge Grant.
“West Virginia has a very stable population,” Niles said. “We don’t get a lot of people migrating in or out of the state, which means that the gene pool — the DNA that all of us has — is pretty stable and more homogeneous. Because of that, it makes it easier to find changes in the genes.”
A mutation or slight variation could be identified that is a contributor to the development of certain cancers, he said.
Petros further explained that cancer treatment is evolving so that many of the new treatments and research avenues are involved with the genetics of the tumor itself. Just like regular genes, the genes of tumors can vary from person to person.
While patients used to receive a certain series of drugs for cancer, newer treatments today are moving toward the specific changes in the tumor, he said. A lot more research is now focused on exploring and identifying these genetic changes.
Petros said the grant will allow WVU, Marshall University and Charleston Area Medical Center to come together and use their best assets in an effort to define genetic abnormalities in the tumors in patients.
The group is doing detailed procedures to try to better understand what genes are driving the growth of those diseases, he said. They will explore new ways of targeting those genes and treating patients.
For this project, the team chose to focus on lung cancer, colon and rectal cancer, ovarian cancer, and acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, because the incidence rates of these diseases are very high in West Virginia. The state has one of the oldest populations in the nation, and AML often occurs in people over the age of 55, Niles said.
For each sample that is obtained from patients — with their consent — the team will be looking at isolating their tumor cells and using their normal cells as a comparison to essentially derive the entire sequence of their DNA, he said. Then they will be able to give a prognosis, whether the tumor is very treatable or very aggressive, and identify targets for more specific cancer drugs.
“For a state like West Virginia, we are pretty close to being on the leading edge,” Niles said.
Petros said the main goal is to help people. If there are more sophistocated tests to predict if someone is going to relapse, then doctors might be able to better help the person before the tumor starts to invade another part of their body.
“Ultimately, we would like to transfer some of this to commercial ventures,” he said. “By knowing what’s in our patients’ tumors, that helps us leverage the new drugs to bring them into the state and treat patients with them.”
Along the way, the project could help the state economically, Petros said.
In the third round of funding, a Research Challenge Grant also went to the Center for Energy Efficient Electronics at West Virginia University and Marshall University.
Dr. David Lederman, who is the Robert L. Carroll Professor of Physics at WVU, is the principal investigator for the center and there are four other co-investigators, three from WVU and one from Marshall.
For this project, the team is trying to create new materials that will allow electronics to be made smaller and use significantly less energy, Lederman said. The electronics that are used today are getting smaller and smaller but there are many issues with heating, which makes the devices unstable and not very energy efficient.
“The problem is that now we’re sort of reaching a plateau because things are getting so small that we’re reaching certain limits in terms of how stable these computer elements are,” Lederman said. “The aim of what we’re trying to do is sort of enable us to have the electronics of the future.”
Using less power can make electronics more stable and allow for the creation of smaller and faster processors for computer applications, he said.
“This is something that we’ve been discussing for the last couple years,” Lederman said.
He said the Department of Physics at WVU has a strategic plan for studying more exotic electronic materials that might be the electronic materials of the future because they use less power and could also be faster. New faculty members have been hired in this area.
The grant will allow the team from WVU and Marshall to accelerate the program and move the research forward much faster because of access to more resources, Lederman said.
“One of our goals is that in a few years we’ll demonstrate collaborative research in this area and we’ll move toward the forefront in terms of the quality and quantity of results, and that will allow us to get funding from federal agencies to move this forward even at a faster pace,” he said.
Another aspect of the project is training students and post-doctoral candidates in this area, Lederman said.
“We will be doing a lot of workforce development here in West Virginia, training students in the state-of-the-art techniques that they can later use in their future careers,” he said.
The third project to receive a Research Challenge Grant was West Virginia University’s Center for Electrochemical Energy Storage.
This effort is aimed at doing fundamental and applied research that will lead to the creation of devices for storing electricity and serving power generation stations. Research, technology transfer, and management and development will be the three primary functions of the center.
The principal investigator, Dr. Xingbo Liu, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at WVU, said West Virginia is basically a coal state and relies on fossil energy.
While more and more renewable resources are being used across the country, the problem is that these resources have unpredictable or unstable supplies because Mother Nature is in control, he said. For instance, wind or solar may not provide a constant supply of energy.
Plus, the cost of renewable resources is too high. It all comes down to supply and demand and finding something to level the supply and demand, Liu said. Coal-fired and gas-fired power plants solve that problem.
The center is examining battery technologies for electrochemical storage systems, which would be affordable, efficient and large-scale, to assist renewable and fossil-fueled plants in running more consistently and meeting demand.
Liu said several departments and about eight or nine faculty members at WVU are involved in this project. The group will collaborate with the College of Law, WVU Office of Technology Transfer, the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at WVU and other entities on these endeavors.
While the grant funding officially started on July 1, WVU has been working on these efforts for more than two years, he said.
The goal for the Research Challenge Grant program is to build the foundation so the recipients can compete for other research grants and opportunities for funding, Liu said. The team of the Center for Electrochemical Energy Storage wants to develop some training programs and hopes its work leads to the formation of spin-off companies.
“We’ll try to use the research to put something in the market,” Liu said.
For more information about the Research Challenge Grant program, visit www.wvresearch.org.
Email Jessica Borders at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.