Wisconsin Partnership Program announces $600,000 in research awards for early-career faculty

February 15, 2022

The Wisconsin Partnership Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health is pleased to announce four new awards totaling $600,000 to the school’s faculty through its New Investigator Program.

The grant program provides opportunities for early-career faculty to initiate new, innovative educational or research pilot projects that, if successful can lead to further support from federal or other granting agencies. This year’s awards support projects that seek to advance knowledge and discovery across a wide range of topics including targeting blindness, improving pregnancy outcomes and advancing gene therapy.

The awards provide up to $150,000 each for the following projects:

Advancing precision medicine: Targeting Gene Therapy Vectors to Nuclear Sites to Improve Precision Medicine and Oncolytic Virotherapies; Kinjal Majumder, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Oncology

  • There are 7,000 different rare genetic disorders that impact approximately 450,000 people in Wisconsin. Gene therapy has the potential to treat these diseases if two major limitations can be addressed: better targeting of the therapy agent and affordability. This project, led by Kinjal Majumder, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Oncology, seeks to address these limitations by improving the nuclear targeting of gene therapy vectors. The team will use a combination of CRISPR/Cas9 technology, Big Data and high-resolution imaging to study the molecular mechanisms of Recombinant Adeno-Associate Virus (rAAV) vectors for gene therapy delivery and provide insights into engineering better rAAV gene therapy vehicles. Their findings will inform future studies and collaborations in the field of gene therapy, with the potential to improve treatments for rare genetic disorders and develop cancer-targeting gene therapies.

Improving health outcomes for Black birthing people: Evaluating the Impacts of Wisconsin’s Birth Cost Recovery Policy on the Health and Wellbeing of Low-Income Black Birthing Parents: A Community-Centered Approach; Tiffany Green, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of Population Health Sciences and Obstetrics and Gynecology

  • Birth Cost Recovery (BCR) holds unmarried, non-custodial fathers liable for Medicaid birth costs in Wisconsin, yet there is little known about the impact of this policy on Black birthing people in Wisconsin. This project, led by Tiffany Green, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of Population Health Sciences and Obstetrics and Gynecology, will work to better understand how BCR and other similar social policies impact inequities in health outcomes among low-income Black birthing people in the state of Wisconsin. Dr. Green and a team of interdisciplinary experts in the fields of economics, population health, pediatrics, social work, clinical/social psychology and community engagement will create an evaluation framework for BCR as a way of measuring the impact of this policy and collect evidence that can be useful in informing future policies and improving health outcomes statewide.

Targeting blindness: Replicating the First Step of Human Vision in a Dish for Designing Effective Therapies to Cure Blindness; Raunak Sinha, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Neuroscience

  • Death of photoreceptors in the retina is the ultimate cause of blindness in various diseases, including macular degeneration, and there are no treatment options available for this or similar retinal degenerative diseases. A new project led by Raunak Sinha, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Neuroscience and collaborator David Gamm, MD, PhD, professor, Department of Ophthalmology will launch novel research into retinal organoids, derived from human stem cells, as a potential replacement for damaged photoreceptors. This team’s findings have the potential to inform effective cures for blindness, and improve the vision, quality of life and independence of those suffering from macular degeneration and other blinding disorders.

Understanding preterm birth: Quantitative Functional Biomarkers of Cervical Remodeling During Pregnancy Using Ultrasound Imaging; Ivan Rosado Mendez, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Medical Physics

  • Preterm birth affects 15 million babies worldwide every year, including ten percent of babies born in Wisconsin. Spontaneous preterm birth can occur when the cervix softens too early into the pregnancy to prepare for birth, and the risk of spontaneous preterm birth can be potentially characterized by changes in cervical vascularity due to increased inflammation. A project led by Ivan Rosado Mendez, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Medical Physics, will investigate the use of ultrasound microvessel imaging (UM) and ultrasound backscatter spectroscopy (UBS) in the study of cervical microvascular remodeling during pregnancy. Although ultimately the goal is to implement UMI in vivo, this project will first design, fabricate, and characterize a tissue-mimicking model to validate the use of UMI and UBS, as well as test the feasibility of the simultaneous use of UMI/UBS by assessing the accuracy of the images. If successful, this technology will contribute to clinicians’ knowledge with in-depth and objective information about important mechanisms surrounding preterm and at-term birth and inform future approaches and interventions for preventing preterm birth.

Since 2005, the Wisconsin Partnership Program has provided $8 million in funding to support the career development of more than 75 School of Medicine and Public Health faculty through the New Investigator Program. The recipients have since leveraged nearly $50 million in external support to sustain or expand their work.

“The Wisconsin Partnership Program’s New Investigator Program has a remarkable legacy of success in propelling the research of the school’s faculty,” says Amy Kind, MD, PhD, executive director of the Wisconsin Partnership Program. “This year’s awards fund the breadth of scientific discovery from basic science to applied public health research. We are thrilled to support these important projects and their potential for improving health outcomes across our state.”

The Wisconsin Partnership Program is a permanent endowment at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, committed to improving health and advancing health equity through investments in community partnerships, education and research. It was established in 2004 through an unprecedented gift as part of the conversion of Blue Cross and Blue Shield United of Wisconsin to a stock insurance corporation. To date, the Wisconsin Partnership Program has awarded more than 582 grants for $270 million to advance biomedical and population health research, promote health care and public health workforce development, and support community partnerships to improve health and advance health equity.