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OHSU investigators awarded $3 million for innovative, promising research

New funds for leading-edge research on malaria vaccines, emerging viral diseases, gun violence prevention, gene regulatory control
Image is a researcher looking at a test, wearing gloves, near a biohazard label in the background.
Four OHSU researchers have been recognized for exceptionally innovative research that promises to make significant contributions to their fields. (OHSU)

Unrestricted funds provide opportunities for investigators to take additional scientific risks in challenging established paradigms — opening possibilities to make extraordinary advances.

Four OHSU researchers have been recognized for exceptionally innovative research that promises to make significant contributions to their fields. The Faculty Excellence and Innovation Awards, made possible by the Silver Family Innovation Fund, provides exceptionally creative early- and middle-stage investigators with a total of $750,000 for each researcher over three years.

The 2022 recipients are Andrew C. Adey, Ph.D., Kathleen Carlson, Ph.D., Fikadu Tafesse, Ph.D., and Brandon Wilder, Ph.D.

Peter Barr-Gillespie, Ph.D., a man with white hair, smiling.
Peter Barr-Gillespie, Ph.D. (OHSU)

“These scientists each have the potential to make a wide-ranging impact on the advancement of scientific knowledge,” said Peter Barr-Gillespie, Ph.D., OHSU chief research officer and executive vice president. “The awards recognize each recipient's compelling record of significant contributions and innovative proposal and will have a major impact on their research programs, as they will provide funds to catalyze innovation in these scientists’ labs and ignite new collaborations across OHSU. Research faculty like these play an important role in helping the university achieve its goals, vision and mission.”

OHSU deans, center and institute directors, and department chairs nominated candidates from their respective units, and applications were reviewed by prominent scientists from institutions around the country.

Awardee profiles

Andrew C. Adey, Ph.D.

Associate professor of molecular and medical genetics, OHSU School of Medicine
Member of Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

Andrew C. Adey, Ph.D. (OHSU) A man with short brown hair, and beard, smiling.
Andrew C. Adey, Ph.D. (OHSU)

The development and treatment of nearly every disease involves alterations to the fundamental molecular profiles of cells that make up the affected organ or tissue.

Recent technologies have made possible the study of the complex biological systems in which cells develop. The Adey Lab has pioneered a number of technologies that have made it possible to map changes in cells in response to stimulus or cell exposure. However, these single-cell technologies fall short of producing a complete picture of the complexity of the components and their interactions. It is the orchestra of components that shape a cell that performs its function.

Adey’s project will take novel approaches to directly address the challenge of providing a complete picture of gene functions in specific cell contexts. The new approaches aim to provide the versatility and power that is needed to interrogate the orchestration of the complex of components. New understandings of these biological systems will be useful to the broad life sciences community and to Adey’s research program, which seeks to learn the fundamental molecular components and interactions that bring functional capabilities to a cell.

Untethered funding makes it possible for Adey to break from traditional strategies that would be suitable for NIH-based funding. The Adey Lab will work to develop enzymes with novel functionality to make possible the profiling of cell properties that have never been interrogated at the level of single cells.  The proposed enzymes will also be able to capture novel combinations of properties from single cells. This second component will involve high technical challenges using CRISPR-Cas9 to alter cellular functions to explore responses in specific cell contexts.

The directions proposed by Adey are high-risk and ambitious, yet mediated by a scientific team of investigators with abundant experience and a record of success in challenging technical pursuits.

Kathleen F. Carlson, Ph.D.

Associate professor of public health, OHSU-PSU School of Public Health

Core investigator, Health Services Research Center of Excellence, VA Portland Health Care System.

Kathleen F. Carlson, Ph.D. (Courtesy) A woman with dark hair smiling.
Kathleen F. Carlson, Ph.D. (Courtesy)

Carslon’s project is to coordinate and cultivate efforts to build an OHSU Gun Violence Prevention Research Center that could have both a state and national impact. She will bring together her training and experience in injury and violence epidemiology with her gun violence prevention research to work with an existing network of experts, applied public health practitioners, and students and other trainees

Oregonians, like people across the U.S., are significantly impacted by a growing epidemic of gun violence, and, like elsewhere in the nation, the impact is felt much more intensely in some communities than in others. In Portland, communities of color have experienced increased rates of firearm homicide since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Oregon’s rural communities experience high rates of gun suicide, with more than 80% of gun deaths in Oregon being suicide-related.

A public health approach to any epidemic uses epidemiology to measure health problems, identify risk and protective factors for those problems, develop prevention strategies and evaluate their effectiveness.

The existing OHSU-PSU Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue Initiative, of which Carlson serves as chair, will be a foundational component of an OHSU center on gun violence prevention research. This initiative, as well as Carlson’s gun violence prevention research, considers how interventions in the health care setting can reduce risk, while also acknowledging and examining the broader socioeconomic factors that contribute to the inequitable burden of this public health issue across the U.S.

The new OHSU Gun Violence Prevention Research Center will respond to the urgency of the gun violence epidemic by leveraging the knowledge, experience and passion that exists at OHSU to respond to this major public health crisis in a concerted and innovative way.

Fikadu Tafesse, Ph.D.

Assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, OHSU School of Medicine

Fikadu Tafesse, Ph.D. (OHSU) A tall man with dark hair, smiling.
Fikadu Tafesse, Ph.D. (OHSU)

The death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic was 5,568,949 on Jan. 18, 2022, with 874,870 deaths in the U.S. alone. Data show the risk of pandemics is rapidly increasing. According to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the major infectious diseases that pose significant future risks to global health include coronaviruses, henipaviruses, flaviviruses and bunyaviruses.

For this reason, Tafesse, who has contributed to the science around the current pandemic, is preparing for the next pandemic.

The Tafesse Lab is devising a strategy that will make it possible to develop therapeutics and diagnostics that can be readily tailored to treat emerging diseases. They envision a nanobody discovery technology platform that would allow the researchers to generate effective nanobodies against emerging viral pathogens within weeks, instead of months or years.

Nanobodies are miniature antibodies, in this case obtained from camelids and sharks, with several unique properties: They are one-tenth the size of conventional antibodies, they are easy to produce and they are ideal probes for blocking viral infections.

Using this nanobody discovery approach, they plan to generate nanobodies against prototype viruses from each emerging viral family — coronaviruses, henipaviruses, flaviviruses and bunyaviruses — with the aim of harnessing those nanobodies as therapeutics to combat these deadly diseases.

Brandon Wilder, Ph.D.

Assistant professor, OHSU Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute and Division of Pathobiology and Immunology, Oregon National Primate Research Center

Brandon Wilder, Ph.D. (OHSU) A man with brown hair and beard, smiling.
Brandon Wilder, Ph.D. (OHSU)

Each year there are 220 million cases of malaria and 400,000 malaria-related deaths. All of these occur in low- and middle-income countries, and two-thirds of these deaths are among children younger than five.

Despite generations of efforts, however, there isn’t a vaccine for malaria. Malaria is caused by a parasite that is much more complex than vaccine-susceptible viruses and bacteria — it is both difficult to eliminate and difficult to study.

The Wilder lab has built an insectary to grow and maintain malaria-infected mosquitos. They have used this to establish nonhuman primate models of malaria and show that they closely mirror human malaria infection and immunology. This has provided an unprecedented opportunity to study the granular details of malaria immunology and use this to develop superior malaria vaccines.

Importantly, working with collaborators at OHSU and across the globe, Wilder’s team has also found new ways the immune system can prevent or eliminate infection by Plasmodium, the parasite responsible for malaria. These dogma-breaking studies open entirely new avenues of malaria vaccine research, but they are infrastructure-intense, costly and require highly trained and dedicated personnel working over long timelines.

The Faculty Excellence and Innovation Award will make it possible for the Wilder lab to undertake a range of activities, from infrastructure to personnel and travel. The lab will renovate and expand their insectary and hire a full-time insectary technician to rear mosquito species that can also support research on dengue, Zika and other emerging vector-borne pathogens.

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