Wisconsin Partnership Program awards $1.2 million through New Investigator Program

March 15, 2024

The Wisconsin Partnership Program (WPP) at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) is pleased to announce $1.2 million in new awards through its New Investigator Program.

The grants of $150,000 each over a period of two years were awarded to eight SMPH investigators for projects across the spectrum of basic, clinical and translational research. This year’s projects focus on topics including aspiration pneumonia, autism spectrum disorder, cancers such as blood, brain, breast, ovarian and skin, and coronary artery disease.

The funded projects include the following:

Defining a Neuron-pericyte Axis via the Neuropeptide Receptor PAC1 in Melanoma Development and Progression

Principal Investigator: Alexander Birbrair, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Dermatology

This project will evaluate the therapeutic significance of receptor signaling for certain tumor-infiltrating cells associated with advanced stages of melanoma, a type of cancer that causes disproportionately higher mortality rates for racial and ethnic minorities. The results of this project will inform clinical testing for medications targeting the implicated signaling pathway to treat melanomas and improve health outcomes for impacted patients.

Determining the Mechanisms by which Common Genetic Variation Affects Molecular and Cellular Traits in Macrocephalic Autism

Principal Investigator: Justin Wolter, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Genetics

In response to the rising prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this project seeks to uncover genetic modifiers influencing ASD outcomes using innovative genetic studies in diverse human cell lines. This work has the potential to uncover how common genetic variations impact specific traits in brain cells, laying the groundwork for targeted therapeutic strategies.

Engineering CAR T Cells to Overcome Variable Antigen Density in Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Principal Investigator: Rebecca Richards, MD, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Pediatrics

This project will evaluate precision methods for measuring key indicators of success for a targeted cancer immunotherapy to expand treatment options for patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which typically has low treatment response rates and poses a challenge for inducing remission after relapse. The results of this project will support efforts to improve other targeted immunotherapeutic strategies for AML through broader application of the study methods.

Functional and Genomic Comparison of Ovarian Cancer Cells in Ascites to Primary Tumor and Associated Cell-free DNA

Principal Investigator: Jessica Lang, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

This project aims to transform ovarian cancer care by repurposing tumor cell-containing abdominal fluid (ascites) samples from patients to identify markers of treatment resistance. The ability to easily assess risk of resistance in patients would potentially eliminate the use of ineffective therapy and serve as a signal for determining when second-line therapies should be explored.

Leveraging Haplotype Diversity to Study Coronary Artery Disease Risk

Principal Investigator: Valentina Lo Sardo, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology

This project aims to elucidate the function of a genetic risk factor for coronary artery disease (CAD), the leading cause of death in Wisconsin. Identifying molecular pathways driving CAD risk has the potential to inform actionable targets for preventive medicine and enhance health in the state and across the nation.

Liquid Biopsy Biomarkers of Targeted Therapy Resistance in Metastatic ER+ Breast Cancer

Principal Investigator: Marina Sharifi, MD, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Medicine

This project will pioneer a liquid biopsy approach to identify treatment-resistant and aggressive features in estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) metastatic breast cancer. The innovative technique, using blood samples, aims to predict the efficacy of standard regimens early, enabling personalized treatment strategies and improving outcomes for breast cancer patients in Wisconsin.

Meaningful Clinical Trial Endpoints in Gliomas: A Novel Multi-modal Approach to Patients with Incurable Brain Tumor

Principal Investigator: Ankush Bhatia, MD, assistant professor CHS, Department of Neurology

This project will utilize advanced neuroimaging and molecular pathology methods to evaluate the impact of brain tumor progression on patient neurocognitive function and quality of life while incorporating metrics that are innovative to neuro-oncology research. Through enhanced understanding of cancer progression on patient quality of life, this project aims to transform treatment and care for patients with brain tumors across Wisconsin and beyond.

Use of a Translational Lung on a Chip Model to Catalyze Diagnostic and Therapeutic Advances for Aspiration Pneumonia

Principal Investigator: Hilary Faust, MD, MS, assistant professor CHS, Department of Medicine

This project is seeking to develop a novel diagnostic model for aspiration pneumonia (AP) through identification of a unique molecular signature for lung injury due to aspiration. Pneumonia is the leading infectious cause of mortality in older adults and about 15 percent of cases are due to AP, which currently lacks objective diagnostic criteria and methodology for identifying high risk patients. The results of this project could inform identification of effective interventions for AP and promote improved health outcomes for at-risk older adults throughout Wisconsin.

“The Wisconsin Partnership Program is proud to support the investigators and innovative projects awarded during this funding cycle,” said Amy Kind, MD, PhD, associate dean for social health sciences and programs at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and executive director of the Wisconsin Partnership Program. “The Wisconsin Partnership Program’s New Investigator Program has a strong track record of supporting the career development of SMPH early-career investigators. It provides them the opportunity to gain experience and generate project data to advance their research and forward their careers.”

To date, the Wisconsin Partnership Program has supported 87 projects totaling $9.7 million through the New Investigator Program. Previous New Investigator grant recipients have successfully leveraged more than $51 million in additional funding, for a remarkable return on investment of more than 600 percent.