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The Hartwell Foundation awards Cornell University researchers $1 million

Cornell has become the first research institution to receive three concurrent faculty grants from The Hartwell Foundation for translational biomedical research aimed at helping children. These grants, along with a fellowship from the foundation, total $1 million and will focus on juvenile diabetes, autism spectrum disorder, depression and heart defects.

The three researchers -- John C. March, assistant professor of biological and environmental engineering on the university's Ithaca campus; Charles E. Glatt, assistant professor in psychiatry, and Anjali M. Rajadhyaksha, assistant professor of neurology and neuroscience, both at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City -- will each receive $100,000 direct cost for three years as Hartwell investigators. In addition, Gretchen J. McAuliffe, a postdoctoral researcher in biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering in Ithaca, will receive $100,000 direct cost over two years as a Hartwell fellow.

The foundation in Memphis, Tenn., supports innovative and cutting-edge applied biomedical research with the potential to benefit children. It funds early-stage projects that have not yet qualified for grants from traditional sources.

"With these awards, The Hartwell Foundation has affirmed the potential of basic and clinical research to improve the health of children," said Cornell President David J. Skorton. "We appreciate the foundation's confidence in the biomedical research efforts of faculty members on our Ithaca and New York City campuses."

March, in a department shared between Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and College of Engineering, was funded for an innovative way to treat chronic and debilitating juvenile (type 1) diabetes. By engineering the probiotic bacteria of the small intestine to stimulate cells lining the intestine to secrete insulin into the blood circulation, he expects to "hide" the site of its production from the body's immune response, which otherwise destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. If the approach proves successful in regulating sugar metabolism, it could result in a very low cost and non-intrusive alternative to current life-long dependence on injected or pumped insulin. This work explores the potential of "re-wiring" human signaling pathways by using probiotic bacteria as transducers.

Rajadhyaksha was funded to study the molecular and cellular mechanisms contributing to autism spectrum disorder, a childhood disease known to affect the development of the brain by disrupting neural connectivity and nerve signal transmission. Capitalizing on recent genetic and anatomical findings showing that genes coding for proteins involved in brain signals are abnormal in autism, she will seek to understand aberrant neuron signaling during early brain development. She hopes her efforts will provide a starting point for translation to diagnostic and therapeutic strategies.

Glatt will use the funding to try to identify genetic factors and biological processes that contribute to depression, in order for early detection of at-risk children. Analyzing adolescent behavior, he will examine the imbalance that occurs between certain regions of the brain that process emotion versus those that impose rational control on emotional response. He hopes to correlate testing with a novel genetic risk factor for a brain protein, which displays differential effects in these same regions of the brain and may contribute to individual genetic differences in emotional dysregulation.

McAuliffe will be working on novel laser surgical techniques for repair of heart defects in the laboratory of Jonathan Butcher, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

In September 2007, The Hartwell Foundation named Cornell one of the country's top 10 biomedical research institutions and presented the university with an opportunity to nominate four candidates for consideration as Hartwell investigators. By participating in the Hartwell competition, the university also qualified to receive a Hartwell Fellowship.

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Simeon Moss