Maria Almeida, Ph.D., is the first researcher at UAMS to receive supplemental funding through the NIAMS STAR program and hopes it will not only take her work to the next level but show other investigators a roadmap for their careers.
Almeida, an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine-Endocrinology in the UAMS College of Medicine, has spent the last 16 years studying the basic mechanisms of bone growth and skeletal aging.
With the $300,000 supplement from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases’ Supplements to Advance Research program, she hopes to springboard her laboratory findings into a pilot drug that she will test for its potential use in bone diseases like osteoporosis.
“They use the phrase ‘from projects to programs,’” Almeida said. “It will allow the opening of new possibilities within my lab. I will be able to take my work beyond one area of focus, and I will be able to be a little more creative with my approach. Most of my work has been in basic science, and this will allow me to be more translational – taking the basic science closer to potential treatments.”
Since its first cycle in 2015, the NIAMS STAR program has awarded only three to five investigators per year. Awardee institutions have included Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Duke University and Stanford University.
One of the perimeters of NIAMS STAR is that it looks to fund what it terms “high-risk ideas.” The thinking is that with high risk also comes the potential for high reward in terms of advances in medicine and impact on human health. In recent years, the National Institutes of Health has been looking for new ways to fund such research.
“Traditional NIH funding programs have certainly led to advances in human health, but there has always been speculation that promising discoveries can take too long to emerge from the lab to become treatments or diagnostics,” said Lawrence E. Cornett, Ph.D., vice chancellor for research at UAMS. “The idea behind NIAMS STAR and similar programs is to give investigators additional resources to pursue these high-risk, high-reward lines of research that have the potential to produce breakthroughs that can rapidly advance a field. Dr. Almeida is a talented investigator whose work has the potential to do just that.”
The STAR program also targets researchers like Almeida because they are at a vulnerable point in their careers. They have had early success with a scientific pursuit but may be running out of traditional funding options. Without funding, they might abandon even promising research for other pursuits.
Instead, NIAMS is looking to help these early- to mid-career scientists – or “early-established investigators (EEIs),” as they call them.
While announcing the program in 2014, NIAMS Director Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D., said that by not adequately supporting these EEIs, what is truly at stake is the loss of innovative advancements to human health and the underdevelopment of the next generation of scientists.
“The goal of the program … is to promote innovation and exploration of new research directions,” Katz said in the announcement. “Ultimately, we believe that the awards will assist EEIs in making the transition from work on a single research project to leadership of a comprehensive research program.”
Almeida received her first NIH Research Project Grant Program (R01) award in 2010. Through extensive research in her lab, she found that the interaction between the cellular-level functions of two proteins involved in gene transcription – forkhead box O and β-catenin – can decrease bone mass.
“We were lucky enough to get great results, which were published in high-impact journals,” Almeida said. “I was able to have the R01 renewed in 2016. Renewing an R01 is not very common and suggests the promising nature of the research. This supplemental funding will allow me to develop a pilot drug out of the principals we discovered, which I can then test to see if it behaves like we expect it to.”
The supplemental funding also opens up the project for collaboration with Kottayil Varughese, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Physiology and Biophysics. Almeida’s lab and Varughese’s lab together will attempt to develop specific cell-penetrating peptides that will block or disrupt the interaction between forkhead box O and β-catenin in order to stimulate bone formation.
The work begins in April 2018.
Almeida notes that there was a small window when she was eligible for the program. At NIAMS, they are focusing on supporting this specific group of promising mid-career scientists, but at other institutes, there are new programs aimed at better supporting senior scientists who are well established or new ones just beginning their careers.
“Funding is critical,” Almeida said. “We all have to keep our eyes open for these new opportunities.”