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Initiatives

New collaborations between Rutgers and funding agencies.

Jeffery and Debra Laskin
Jeffrey and Debra Laskin, a brother-and-sister team trained in pharmacology and toxicology, have worked together for more than 25 years in leading many research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health. Photography by Nick Romanenko

Collaboration for a Cause
Collaboration among scientists is a crucial component in successful research. Would it be enhanced if the sharing of information took place between a brother and sister? Evidently. Jeffrey and Debra Laskin, trained in pharmacology and toxicology, have worked together for more than 25 years, leading many research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In announcing a five-year, $23 million grant, the NIH has turned to them again as part of a larger collaboration between Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ)–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to continue their efforts in developing drugs to combat chemical agents that might be used in a terrorist attack. “It’s hard to develop as a scientist and be successful without collaborators,” says Debra, professor II and chair of pharmacology and toxicology at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers.

“We have made progress,” says Jeffrey, a professor of environmental and occupational medicine at UMDNJ–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “We believe that the drugs needed in case of a terrorist attack will be developed. The threat is not over.”

A Repository for Mental Health Disorders
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), through a grant of $1.2 million, has funded the establishment of a stem cell repository at the Rutgers University Cell and DNA Repository (RUCDR) that will give researchers additional resources with which to more effectively study mental health disorders such as attention deficit disorder, autism, depression, and schizophrenia. The NIMH Repository Supporting Stem Cell Research will be part of the NIMH Center for Collaborative Genomic Studies on Mental Disorders, which was founded at Rutgers in 1998. Since then, the NIMH has given the univer­sity $96 million to establish cell lines, DNA, and RNA for the NIMH Genetics Initiative by gathering samples from families with mental health disorders.

“The biology of mental health disorders has been especially difficult to study because brain tissue from affected individuals is seldom available,” said Jay A. Tischfield, the principal investigator, Duncan and Nancy MacMillan Professor of Genetics, and director of the Human Genetics Institute of New Jersey. “With the award of this new grant, we will provide researchers with new biological tools that will greatly enhance our understanding of the biological basis of mental disorders.”

Researchers will now be able to use skin or other cells from people with mental health disorders to create stems cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells, which are similar to embryonic stem cells. They, in turn, can become brain cells such as neurons. Until now, researchers have been hampered by having to rely on brain tissue from individuals with mental health disorders after they die, a time when brain cells quickly degrade.

As part of a national research effort to determine the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to alcoholism, RUCDR also received a four-year, $10 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to provide DNA extraction, genetic testing, and repository services for 46,000 saliva samples. The initiative is the largest National Institutes of Health-supported whole genome DNA sequencing study to date.

Making a Better Drug
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given a grant of up to $35 million to a 10-university consortium that includes Rutgers to pursue improvements in pharmaceutical manufacturing to reduce costs and improve the quality and safety of drugs. The National Institute for Pharmaceutical Technology and Education, which received the five-year grant, will distribute the funds, which, in part, will go to the School of Engineering. It hosts several research and education programs in pharmaceutical engineering, including a research center addressing improvements in the manner in which pharmaceuticals, foods, and agricultural products are manufactured.

A Cure for Epilepsy
In the aftermath of an epileptic seizure, brain cells die. But is there a way to avoid this inevitability? The National Institutes of Health is banking on Wilma Friedman to find a solution. Friedman, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers–Newark, received a four-year, $2 million grant to explore why an epileptic seizure, or any traumatic brain injury, causes the protein ProNGF (known as a growth factor) to bind to the cell receptor P75 and instructs the cell to die. In nontraumatic events, however, the process doesn’t take place. If Friedman and her team can unravel this mystery, her findings could have implications in finding benefits for not only victims of these seizures, but also those stricken by strokes, other traumatic brain injuries, and perhaps degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Emmet Dennis
Emmet Dennis is the president of the University of Liberia, which will be receiving support from Rutgers and other universities. Photography by Nick Romanenko

War and Peace
After more than a decade of bloody civil war in Liberia that has cost the lives of more than 250,000 people, Rutgers, as part of a consortium of American universities, will be coming to the aid of the beleaguered African nation. In participating in a five-year program—the Excellence in Higher Education for Liberian Devel­opment that is being funded by an $18.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development—Rutgers will send 45 faculty members and staff to educate engineers and agricultural scientists at the University of Liberia and Cuttington College. Emmet Dennis, the president of the University of Liberia and formerly the dean of University College at Rutgers–New Brunswick, believes the initiative, of which Rutgers will receive $4 million, will rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and shore up its agricultural system. Rutgers will also help in the areas of the humanities, library sciences, and student affairs.

Reducing Road Rage
Rutgers, in partnership with UCLA, has been asked to develop technology that will reduce traffic congestion and air pollution in cities. Known as intelligent metropolitan traffic-management technology, the wireless network monitors traffic and then recommends alternate routes for drivers who are using a navigation device in the car. In having the traffic more evenly distributed, air pollution hot spots are reduced. Working with a grant of $2 million from the National Science Foundation, experts in urban planning, computer science, atmospheric sciences, and environmental health sciences will develop the system, which will also assist metropolitan transportation agencies. Liviu Iftode, a professor in the Department of Computer Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, will head up the effort at Rutgers.

Relief for the Reefs
The Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, part of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in New Brunswick, received a grant of $1.5 million from the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program to study the reaction of coral reefs to natural and anthropogenic stresses.

Forest Whitaker and Aldo Civico
Actor Forest Whitaker and Aldo Civico, an assistant professor at Rutgers–Newark, are the cofounders of the International Institute for Peace at Rutgers. Photography courtesy of the International Institute for Peace

Give Peace a Chance
Actor and humanist Forest Whitaker and Rutgers assistant professor Aldo Civico announced that the International Institute for Peace, which they cofounded at Rutgers–Newark last May during the Newark Peace Education Summit, is now operating under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“With UNESCO, we share the same mission: to build peace in the minds of women and men,” says Whitaker, chair of the institute. “We are committed to foster a global culture and practice of peace by strengthening the human potential for peace through dialogue and negotiation.”

The institute “will complement UNESCO’s platform of promoting a culture of peace and nonviolence, ‘particularly in the areas of youth, education, culture, science, communication, and gender equality,’” says Civico, who is associated with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and serves as the institute’s director.