New Grants Seed Discovery

June 13, 2016

Great ideas can change the way we treat patients, but there’s a double bind that derails many a good idea: how can we gather preliminary data to secure grant funding to fully test an idea if we don’t have funding for the testing required to secure the larger grant funding to fully test the idea?

For faculty in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences, the answer is the new seed grants program. Launched earlier this year, the seed grants program supports small or pilot research projects that can yield the evidence necessary for a competitive, large grant application to external funders like the National Institute for Health (NIH).

This first round of seed grant competition encouraged projects with two principal investigators (clinical + basic science) to promote both teamwork and translational science. Vice Chair for Research Elizabeth Krupinski, PhD, provided core funding of $15,000 and several clinical divisions contributed an additional $5,000 to support applicants from their division.

The department’s Grant Review Committee evaluated and scored the proposals from both clinical and research faculty using criteria similar to that of the NIH. Projects additionally were scored on their likelihood of successfully competing for federal funding, which was based on the potential power of the pilot’s results.

“We’re thrilled with the quality of the proposals submitted this first round,” says Dr. Krupinski. “We feel the four winners are especially strong contenders for national funding and look forward to seeing the results of this pilot testing phase.”

The seed grants mean a great deal to the researchers, too.

“It would be really difficult to do this pioneer research without this seed grant,” says Amit Saindane, MD, division director of neuroradiology. His project examines the impact of bariatric surgery and resulting weight loss on the brain. “We know that obesity is an independent risk factor for dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease,” he says, “but we don’t really understand the link. This seed grant will enable us to study fifteen patients undergoing bariatric surgery and see what happens to their brain size, blood flow, and performance on an array of cognitive tests. It’s very exciting.”

For Marina Piccinelli, MD, the award is a surprising vote of confidence. “They sent out an email announcing the grants but I didn’t receive it,” she explains. “The next day we had the department’s research retreat. I was listening to the presentations and heard my name. I’d won! It was a beautiful ‘And the winner is’ moment. It’s everything, as a junior researcher, to know the department, the senior people, believe in my work and want to support me. I’m telling you it’s a great feeling.”

The four grant-winning teams are required to provide progress updates, a final report, and evidence of subsequently submitted grant proposals. The goal is to continue the seed grant program with at least one application cycle per year.

Congratulations to the four winning seed grant teams!

Marina Piccinelli, PhD and Valeria Moncayo, MD: “Definition of Vessel-Specific Normality Ranges of Absolute Myocardial Blood Flow (MBV) and Myocardial Flow Reserve (MFR) by Means of 82Rb Dynamic PET/CT Image Fusion.” This study will apply a recently proposed method for the calculation of vessel-specific MBF and MFR by means of PET/CTA multimodality image fusion to a population of normal/low likelihood coronary artery disease subjects for the creation of normality ranges of rest/stress flow values along the main coronary arteries. The normal limits will be eventually used for comparison and interpretation of data from patients with known and/or suspected coronary artery disease.

Amit Saindaine, MD, with supporting investigators in Radiology, Neuropsychology, and the Emory Bariatric Surgery Program: “Exploring Changes in Brain Structure and Function in Patients Undergoing Bariatric Surgery.”  The project seeks to better understand brain structural and functional alterations in morbidly obese patients measured by MRI, and the effects of substantial weight loss from bariatric surgery on the brain. The project’s goal is to provide a potential link to mechanisms by which obesity can result in dementia and how weight loss through a variety of available treatments can benefit brain health.

Puneet Sharma, PhD and colleagues from Radiology and Gastroenterology: “Measurement of Extracellular Volume Fraction (ECV) as a Non-Invasive MRI Biomarker for Liver Fibrosis.”  The project aims to develop accurate and reproducible MR methods to stage liver fibrosis and disease progression, which, in turn, can guide and monitor therapeutic intervention. Because current methods involve patient risk, sampling error, and high costs that limit the ability to conduct serial measurements, the goal of this project is to validate the utility of ECV measurement using T1 mapping for the characterization of liver fibrosis.

John Wilson, MD, PhD and experts from Radiology and Cardiology: “Regional Biomechanical Characterization and Risk Assessment of Evolving Aortic Aneurysms, Dissections, and Intraluminal Thrombus by Multi-sequence MRI.” This project leverages advances in MRI techniques to quantify the spatially heterogeneous biomechanical features of the evolving aneurysmal aortic wall and underlying intraluminal thrombus. This then will form the foundation of an innovative, non-invasive MR approach to estimating patient-specific risk of expansion/rupture by regionally mapping and correlating evolving distributions of strain, blood flow, material heterogeneities, and thrombus.