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Sunday, June 16, 2019

URI awarded $20 million to further expand biomedical research capacity in R.I.

More than $80 million awarded to URI since program began in 2001

A University of Rhode Island-based initiative that has successfully expanded biomedical research capacity at nearly all of Rhode Island’s universities and colleges has been awarded another $20 million in federal funding to further expand the program over the next five years.

The Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), which has been funded by the National Institutes of Health since 2001 with $61 million in previous grants, was established to expand statewide research capacity in the biomedical sciences, including the research disciplines of cancer, neuroscience and environmental health sciences. 

It does so by supporting early-career faculty development, providing experiential learning opportunities to students, and acquiring and maintaining high-tech equipment for use by all participating researchers.

The University of Rhode Island partners with Brown University, Rhode Island College, Providence College, Bryant University, Roger Williams University, Salve Regina University and the Community College of Rhode Island in the program.


“The INBRE program has been truly transformative for Rhode Island’s research community,” said URI President David M. Dooley. “We’ve contributed to expanding the opportunities for faculty research and trained hundreds of students who are now earning advanced degrees or are out in the workforce.”

“Renewing this grant is great news for the state,” said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “This federal funding will help lead to research breakthroughs and train tomorrow’s biomedical workforce here in Rhode Island.”

URI Vice President for Research Peter Snyder notes that “the RI-INBRE program is a vital resource to train the next generation of biomedical researchers.  The program supports work that ranges from discovering novel treatments for very serious human diseases, to exploring the impacts of environmental degradation on human health.”

“Our job is to make sure that junior faculty around the state have the basic biomedical research infrastructure available so they can train the next generation of biomedical scientists and create a pipeline to fill the needs of the state’s biomedical sector,” said Bongsup Cho, the URI professor of pharmacy who leads the program. 

“Science is expensive, so INBRE was developed at the federal level as one mechanism to help researchers at all institutions be competitive. And, in Rhode Island, the results have been impressive.”

Over the program’s first 17 years, it has supported more than 500 research and training projects involving 151 different faculty members. It has also provided research training to 1,381 undergraduate students, 168 graduate students and 48 postdoctoral fellows.

“Many of the junior faculty we’ve supported through the years have gone on to be promoted to full professors, and now they’re serving as mentors and scientific consultants in the program,” Cho said.
Many students in the program have earned post-graduate degrees and are now employed at universities, hospitals, and pharmaceutical and engineering companies.

“We’ve built a real community of researchers,” said Cho. “People at the various colleges who didn’t know each other before are now collaborating on their research. We’ve inspired a culture change among researchers, especially at the primarily-undergraduate institutions. And we’re not finished yet.”

Some of the research that has been conducted as a result of the program is laying the foundation for future work that will improve human health.

For example, Daniel Roxbury, URI assistant professor of chemical engineering, studies nanomaterials for the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Using newly discovered fluorescence properties of the nanomaterials, he and his students are creating wearable or implantable sensors for the real-time detection of disease biomarkers.

Research by Jamie Towle-Weicksel, assistant professor at Rhode Island College, has identified mutated forms of a protein that repairs DNA damage caused by sunlight in tumors from patients with melanoma. She and her students have found that the mutated form of the protein is unable to repair DNA effectively and may contribute to the disease.

As a URI undergraduate studying microbiology in 2004, Dioscaris Garcia was one of the program’s first Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows, an experience he called the “single most influential experience” of his young scientific career.

“That experience fostered a sense of community and collaboration the likes of which I had never experienced,” Garcia said. 

“As an inner-city youth with little exposure to the possibilities and options STEM had to offer, the program gave me the push to explore passions I didn’t know I had.”

As a result of his participation in the program, Garcia went on to earn a doctorate at Brown University in molecular pharmacology and physiology, which led to his present position as assistant research professor and co-director of Brown’s Weiss Center for Orthopaedic Trauma Research.

New initiatives to be funded by the latest grant to the program include the establishment of post-baccalaureate positions to encourage outstanding students to remain part of the biomedical workforce in Rhode Island, and the expansion of the existing teaching postdoctoral fellows program. New teaching assistantships will also be created to support the graduate education of students who previously participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships program.

The new grant will also help launch community engagement activities and new collaborations with other existing research programs involved in complementary themes around the state.