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New $10M award will help faculty development, ensure biomed research growth

Over the past five years, Boise State University’s biomedical research has flourished with the support of a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. This funding enabled principal investigator Julia Oxford, a professor in the biology department, to establish the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), which has given Boise State a competitive edge in matrix biology research – the study of the extracellular matrix – as well as helped launch the professional careers of a number of Boise State faculty members.

Boise State now is proud to announce that COBRE has been selected to receive the institute’s Phase 2 funding, which will sustain the momentum of Boise State’s biomedical research with another $10 million over five years.

Julia Oxford

“When we think about how our bodies are made and what they do, we usually focus on organs, tissues and cells. But around, within and between them is a less understood material – what’s called the extracellular matrix – that also plays an essential part in making us what we are,” Oxford said of the research.

David Estrada is one of 16 junior and pilot investigators from across campus who were supported by Phase 1 of COBRE, and he credits the support received from Oxford as integral to earning his 2019 National Science Foundation CAREER award. CAREER awards are the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards given to junior faculty.

“Dr. Oxford’s mentorship and support through the COBRE in extracellular matrix biology had a tremendous impact on my early career,” said Estrada. “Through her support, I was able to build international research collaborations, travel to prestigious conferences to present our findings and support the research efforts of over 15 postdoctoral, graduate, undergraduate and professional staff researchers.”

As with the first phase of funding, Phase 2 will play an especially important role in supporting the research and career development of fledgling faculty.

“The goal is to create a critical mass of matrix biology investigators and support biomedical research programs at Boise State, assuring that researchers at Boise State can contribute to the mission of the National Institutes of Health, addressing national health concerns that NIH recognizes as most most important or most challenging,” said Oxford.

Initially, the grant will support the research pursuits of the following four faculty:

  • Richard Beard, an assistant research professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, researches the role of the extracellular matrix in vascular biology and inflammation. Beard will investigate the role the extracellular matrix in neuro-inflammation and how molecules of the extracellular matrix modulate blood-brain-barrier function.
  • Clare Fitzpatrick, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering, will take a systems-level approach to address mechanical, biological and structural components of articular joint degeneration during the progression of osteoarthritis in order to develop a comprehensive understanding and to facilitate improved care for patients.
  • Brad Morrison, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, is researching Parkinson’s disease and the role of extracellular matrix molecules in the brain.
  • Lisa R. Warner, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is interested in researching RNA binding proteins that regulate the expression of extracellular matrix molecules.

Support for COBRE also creates new opportunities for faculty to involve students in research that may prove to shape the course of their lives and studies. Oxford, a first-generation college student, believes that Boise State is unique in the number of opportunities that exist for undergraduates to gain lab and internship experiences, and considers it a strength of the university.

More than 100 undergraduate students were supported in paid research experiences, internships and travel to professional research conferences through COBRE funding. Additionally, the program supported more than 60 graduate students in labs across campus.

Two of Estrada’s former students who were supported by COBRE, Emily Tanasse and Katie Yocham, have gone on to work on bioprinting the human lung and at Hewlett-Packard to solve global manufacturing challenges, respectively.

“The most exciting thing is that this grant represents resources that will move Boise State forward in the arena of biomedical research. And since I came here in the year 2000, I have seen incredible growth in research programs,” said Oxford. “I think that there’s still so much potential here. Grants like this allow people to reach that potential.”

“It is evident that the COBRE program at Boise State has built a diverse ecosystem of biomolecular and biomedical engineering researchers that are well equipped to solve grand challenges in healthcare locally, nationally and internationally,” said Estrada.

Additional investigators supported by Phase I were: