Modest Research Grants Nurture Big Discoveries

What would you do with a $10,000 voucher? At Cedars-Sinai, researchers use them to pave the way to medical breakthroughs and bigger grants to fund future discoveries.

The vouchers, awarded once a year, help scientists access the latest technologies at research core facilities at Cedars-Sinai and allied institutions. Funded by the National Institutes of Health through the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute and its Center for Translational Technologies, these relatively modest sums can be critical to launching larger projects.

For instance, a 2011 core voucher played a key role in a Cedars-Sinai study, published in March in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, that demonstrated for the first time that overexpression of ACE, or angiotensin-converting enzyme, by innate immune cells can help prevent cognitive decline and break down defective brain proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease.

The article's lead and senior author, Maya Koronyo-Hamaoui, PhD, a research scientist at the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute, used the voucher at the Cedars-Sinai Biobehavioral Core (now a division of the Animal Models Core) and the Flow Cytometry Core to validate earlier studies involving mouse models engineered to have Alzheimer's-like pathologies and to overexpress ACE in their immune cells.

This additional testing revealed that the observed positive effect of ACE on the brain persisted for more than a year. "This was a very important finding for potentially developing a disease-modifying therapy for Alzheimer's," said Koronyo-Hamaoui, assistant professor of neurosurgery in the Departments of Neurosurgery and Biomedical Sciences.

Data from this work helped her provide scientific justification for securing more than $1 million in grants from federal, private and other competitive peer-reviewed foundation sources.

Another researcher who has benefited from the voucher program is David Underhill, PhD, professor in the Departments of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine. He used his 2011 award to genetically profile the vast community of fungi that live in the large intestine. This study helped lead to an article, published in the journal Science, that placed Underhill among the first researchers to characterize these fungi.

"None of the funding I had before that point budgeted for high throughput genomic sequencing in the Cedars-Sinai Genomics Core," Underhill recalled. This data also later helped him obtain more than $2 million in federal and private grants to further develop his investigations.

Since its founding in October 2011, the voucher program has awarded nearly 90 grants to Cedars-Sinai scientists. The 17 winners of this year's vouchers were announced in May. ( 2014 CTSI CTT Core Voucher Awardees - PDF ) "What is so valuable about the voucher award mechanism is that it funds peer-reviewed, investigator-initiated projects," said the program's leader at Cedars-Sinai, Jonathan Kaye, PhD, professor of biomedical sciences and medicine and vice chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences.

For more information about the program, visit the CTSI page. For a description of the cores, visit Research Cores.

Photos (from top): Cedars-Sinai researchers Maya Koronyo-Hamaoui, PhD, and David Underhill, PhD