2012-07-05 / Top News


Scripps scientists rely on grants to achieve national acclaim for research

THE GRANTS ROLL IN, SEEMINGLY AS PREDICTABLE AS the tide at Carlin Park. They seek to study and understand, to treat and to cure, to improve lives and even, ultimately, to save them. They fill three printed pages — and those are just the ones from fiscal year 2011 to mid-May of this year. A small sampling:

Oct. 10, 2011: The Scripps Research Institute has been awarded a $2.2 million grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to determine how the hepatitis C virus induces liver cancer.

Oct. 13, 2011: The Scripps Research Institute has been awarded $4.2 million from the National Institutes of Health in a program to advance what the agency calls “bold and creative research” into Type 1 diabetes.

March 6, 2012: A pair of Scripps Research Institute scientists have been awarded $3.85 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop a new generation of broad-spectrum anti-cancer therapeutics, including breast cancer and lymphoma.

Since 2004, Scripps Florida has received about $241 million in federal grants. 
COURTESY PHOTO Since 2004, Scripps Florida has received about $241 million in federal grants. COURTESY PHOTO May 14, 2012: Scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute have been awarded an $8.4 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health to develop new compounds to help prevent relapse in smokers who are kicking the habit.

The no-smoking grant alluded to in that fourth grant announcement is Paul Kenny’s. He’s the program director and principal investigator for the five-year study, which aims to short-circuit nicotine addiction with a nicotine-like molecule. It’s an exciting pursuit, this fighting-firewith faux-fire approach, and one that Mr. Kenny would love to discuss at length but this late-May morning is not ideal. He has a presentation to make at 3:30 in the afternoon, one with a potential $50 million attached to it.

Scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute have been awarded an $8.4 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health to develop new compounds to help prevent relapse in smokers who are trying to quit. 
COURTESY PHOTOS Scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute have been awarded an $8.4 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health to develop new compounds to help prevent relapse in smokers who are trying to quit. COURTESY PHOTOS Oh, and then there’s this: “To top it all off, my wife is about to give birth,” he says, and smiles. “Any day now.”

He strides, quickly, across Scripps’ lushly landscaped Jupiter campus from Building B to Building A and his office, apologizing for the time constraint. This afternoon’s presentation involves the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the development of a public-private developer project, a PDP: a not-for-profit organization — an actual company — the mission of which would be conquering nicotine addiction.

“I have to prepare an overview of how we would run this program if we’re the ones selected to administer it,” he says, lifting a laptop cover, clicking through a series of slides that support his proposal. “Which compounds we would go after, how we would fill our pipeline, how we would interact with other people who would be interested in doing this, the American Cancer Society, smoking organizations, how we would liaise with them, how we would administer this massive budget, although it’s a drop in the ocean. We have to convince them we know what we’re doing, that we’ll do a better job than our competitors, who are very well qualified, too.”

Competition was fierce, but it’s down to the final two now and good sportsmanship dictates that Mr. Kenny not cite the rival research lab.

Scientists here write their own grant proposals. “Every word, every word,” he says. “Here’s one. Each one’s like a book, you know?” With his thumb, he fans an inch-thick stack of neatly typed pages, the proposal for the no-more-smoking research. “I’m down to around one (proposal) a year, and it tends to be for renewals. They tend to come in five-year blocks. Typically, they want to make sure if a program’s going to be successful, you want to commit for at least 10 years. So it’s a good idea. And we’re constantly looking for the next one.”

There has been no dearth of next ones. Since its inception in 2004, Scripps Florida has received about $241 million in federal grants, according to the 2011 Scripps Florida Funding Corporation annual report, the most recent one available.

As a non-profit research organization, Scripps Florida — like its counterpart in La Jolla, Calif. — relies on grants and donations to sustain it. Its success in attracting grants, which go a long way in attracting donations, is based on “the quality of the people, plus the infrastructure here and the vision of this place, the integration of biology and chemistry and technology,” says Patrick Griffin, director of Transitional Research, the translating of scientific research into practical application.

“As a non-profit research organization, we rely on grants,” says Mr. Griffin. “We hire faculty who have distinguished careers. We, as an institute, have a track record of success and attracting people with excellent reputations and good grantsmanship.”

Applying for grants is part of the job here, and each submission undergoes stringent review by the funding organization. “Peer review is based on innovation, the quality of investigation and the ability to carry it out,” says Mr. Griffin, who received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Virginia. “Reputation counts, and that’s based on past success. In science, it’s all about what you’ve done. The only measure for predicting future success is past success.”

Instant gratification is not part of the process. Knowing whether one’s grant won a thumbs-up or thumbs-down can take a while. Mr. Griffin applied for a cancer-research grant back in January, and it’s just now, in this last week of May, being reviewed; he’ll learn its score soon and know if it has a chance. He and Mr. Kenny could hear from the NIH as soon as August about his $50 million program project proposal.

“That’s actually pretty quick,” Mr. Griffin says. “You’re dealing with the government, and the government usually doesn’t move fast.”

The current economic picture has added stress to the overall grant process, with many organizations competing for the same shrinking federal dollars. “We’ve all developed thick skins over the years,” Mr. Griffin says, referring to the times when a grant isn’t granted. “The model for sustainability is bringing in enough grant money to cover the cost of the institution. In addition to federal research grants, the institute relies on donor revenue, which took a big hit in recent years, but the hope is that it will come back strong soon.”

An NIH Web site posting in February cited the $30.86 billion federal budget request for NIH for fiscal year 2013, the same overall level as fiscal year 2012: “As described in the budget document,” it notes, “we estimate that these funds will support 9,415 new and competing research project grants (RPGs) in fiscal year 2013, an increase of 672 above fiscal year 2012. In order to maximize resources in fiscal year 2013 for investigator-initiated grants, and to continue to focus on resources for young, first-time researchers, we propose to reduce non-competing RPGs by one percent from the fiscal year 2012 level, and to negotiate the budgets of competing RPGs to avoid growth in the average award size (estimate of -1 percent) from fiscal year 2012. Also, we will no longer build in the inflationary increases that were included for planning purposes . . .”

So far, Scripps Florida continues to attract the grants that support it — grants that go a long way toward attracting much-needed donor dollars.

“We’re really reaping the rewards of all the farsighted work that went before us,” says Mr. Kenny, who did his undergraduate work at Dublin’s Trinity College and earned his Ph.D. in neuropsychopharmacology at the University of London. “It’s crazy. Some very far-sighted focus: drug screening in academic study. Industry will focus on one given target area. I wouldn’t say they ignore given areas, but unless it’s a major economic focus for them, they won’t invest too much unless it’s a serendipitous finding, then they’ll go after it. The one we’re focused on now is tobacco dependence ... smoking and smoking-related diseases.”

He ticks off the names of his colleagues on the study: Michael Cameron, Theodore Kamenecka and Patricia McDonald.

“If this works, it literally will save lives,” he says, his smile like a child’s on Christmas morning. He is 39 but looks a dozen years younger. “From a personal perspective, it’s an amazing motivator. You could be the one who does this.”

The science, the mechanism of addiction, fascinates him.

“For me, when you think about addiction, it’s a disease in itself,” he says. “Your behavior ... you, as a person, change. You go from being probably a well-adjusted person, in control of yourself, to somebody who’s lost control. It’s this kind of conflict of the self. How can your brain be corrupted so that your behavior is not what you want it to be?”

In a sense, Sathya Puthanveettil’s research asks the same question but in a far different form. In January, Mr. Puthanveettil received a pair of grants — one from the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, the other from the Whitehall Foundation, a Palm Beach-based organization that assists scholarly research in the life sciences — to study aspects of long-term memory.

An assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience, he earned his Ph.D. in biology from Washington State University and a prize for innovative research ideas from The National Neurofibromatosis Foundation and International Neurofibromatosis Research Foundation. His long-term goal is no less impressive: to understand the molecular and cellular basis of memory storage and cognitive disorders.

It is pure science, but it is more than that, too: the project seeks to develop therapeutics to treat Alzheimer’s. Look at the statistics, he suggests. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of breast-cancerrelated deaths decreased by 3 percent, while the number of Alzheimer’s-related deaths increased by 66 percent.

There is a personal connection, too. His grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s. “It robs you of the person,” he says. “In the later stages, things become just a blur. She actually almost forgot me.”

The personal also enters into Mr. Kenny’s research.

“Being Irish, everyone can think of someone who has dealt with alcoholism, alcohol abuse,” he says. “Really, everyone has seen it. I didn’t realize how the brain chemistry was involved. It’s a disease, much like heart disease or cancer.”

As for nicotine addiction, “Nearly every family is impacted. At least 400,000, 450,000 people each year still die from smoking. It’s a major cause of premature death, far more than any obesity or diabetes related diseases.”

The molecule is itself much like nicotine. “It’s nicotine-like, so it’s got nicotine properties, structurally it looks like nicotine, and functionally it acts like nicotine, just not quite as powerful. So it’s something like Methadone for smokers. Methadone for heroin addicts, the prescription Chantix for smokers.

“Those type of maintenance therapies don’t really work that well. So what we’re trying to do is to say, ‘We know a ton about the circuitries in the brain to regulate addiction. What we know is lightyears ahead of where we are in terms of the compounds and drugs that are being made. Can we take the basic knowledge that we’ve accumulated, through the investments of the NIH over the past 23 years, and now begin to turn them into drugs?’ ”

That, of course, is now the 8.4-milliondollar question.

Mr. Kenny traces his interest in addictive behavior back to his college years: “I was very interested in basic brain chemistry and behavior. During graduate school, doing my Ph.D., I worked on the role of nicotine receptors in behavior, the protein in the brain that’s targeted by nicotine. Almost invariably you’re interested in, well, here’s a natural product that’s made by plants that hits this brain protein and has all these behavioral effects that become addiction. How is this behavior occurring?”

School — a teacher, in particular — influenced Mr. Puthanveettil’s career direction, as well. “While I was in middle school, I was excited by science,” he says. “At the time, there was no television in my village in India. But in the mornings, there used to be programs on the radio about scientists. Albert Einstein. Issac Newton. They ran an hour of talk about these great scientists. And I had a teacher who was very supportive of my interest.”

Scripps Florida has assumed the support role for both Mr. Kenny and Mr. Puthanveettil.

“The only real demand we have,” Mr. Kenny says, “is that you do the best science you possibly can.”

“Nothing is restricting you from working,” Mr. Puthanveettil says.

The work carries no time restrictions either. Scientific research doesn’t always adhere to a routine 9-to-5 workday. Mr. Puthanveettil smiles when he mentions his wife, Bindu Raveendra, a chemist at Scripps Florida.

A mutual friend brought them together when Mr. Puthanveettil was working in New York at Columbia University.

“Sometimes, a common interest brings people together. We had a strong chemistry,” he says, not intending the pun. Ms. Raveendra understands the work, the long hours it can demand, so that, as he says, “Even if I come home at 2 o’clock in the night, I’m welcomed home.”

The fuel for such research is grant money, and the fuel for grant money is ideas.

The idea for Mr. Puthanveettil’s current work was in his mind for “three, four, maybe six months” before he set it on paper.

Once the grants were assured, he pulled in colleagues Peter Hodder (molecular therapeutics) and William Roush (chemistry) for the necessary inter-disciplinary approach.

The team will use a marine snail called Aplysia, favored in memory research because of its simple nervous system and extremely large neurons, the nerve cells that receive and send electrical signals throughout the body — in this case, the brain.

When Mr. Kenny talks about the ideas that translate into successful grants, he talks about discipline.

““If you chase too many ideas, you never make headway,” he says. “The trick is to combine, really, the best ideas and chase after them quickly and very, very hard. That’s where success seems to come from, by being quick and being smart. If you can communicate well, you tend to do well.”

Doing well means earning grants and the money that underlies the research. But the end game is never far from the scientists’ minds: treatment or cure or at least additional understanding, another step toward the eventual treatment or cure. The clinical trials that test the pills or the sprays or the ointments or whatever emerges, tend to be done elsewhere. And that is just fine at a non-profit research lab.

“Our goal is to improve human health, not to make money,” Mr. Griffin says. ¦

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