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Practicing Collaboration: Faster Translation

Rosalind Franklin University researchers are collaborating across disciplines to speed discovery of new ways to maintain and improve health.

Investigators in the Department of Physical Therapy, the Center for Lower Extremity Ambulatory Research (CLEAR) and the basic sciences are focused on finding answers to health problems that threaten to debilitate an aging, overweight population: the diabetic wound that won’t heal; falls that cause injuries and deaths; the mobility impairments wrought by Parkinson’s disease. 

Ronald Kaplan, PhD, executive vice president for research, is leading an effort to increase RFU’s competitiveness in areas of biomedical research that, with an infusion of fresh, interdisciplinary collaboration between clinicians and basic scientists, might yield new answers to problems related to aging, obesity and the epidemic of Type 2 diabetes.

“It’s part of our vision for interdisciplinary research throughout the university,” said Dr. Kaplan, who is overseeing pilot funding initiatives, both formal and informal, and has helped develop interdisciplinary research that expands on the internationally recognized work of CLEAR by adding the expertise of other RFU-based research centers.

Stephanie Wu, DPM, MS, FACFAS, director of CLEAR, has partnered with the Midwest Proteome Center, directed by Marc Glucksman, PhD, to examine and compare altered protein composition in wounds of diabetic and non-diabetic patients. Daniel Peterson, PhD, director of the Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, is also involved in the effort to combat chronic lower extremity wounds that plague more than six million people in the United States and that often lead to amputation.

“It occurred to us that stem cells might have an effect in helping to heal these wounds,” said Dr. Peterson in a call from London where he had just delivered the keynote address at the Tissue Engineering Congress and where a scientist had discussed her findings that diabetes “makes the skin cells sick.”

“It’s important to understand that,” Dr. Peterson said. “We need to understand diabetes is a whole body disease and it affects stem cells too.”

Dr. Kaplan expects inspired teamwork across RFU to produce high-impact peer review publications and attract extramural federal funding to sustain the investigations.

“Funding agencies want to see a faster translation from basic science to clinical science to speed the development of new therapies,” he said. “Basic science can take decades to translate into human application. Working together, clinical and research investigators can discover new ideas for treatment and prevention much more quickly than working in isolation.” Another collaboration was sparked in 2014 when Assistant

Professor Laila Alibiglou, PhD, then the new director of the Motion Analysis and Translational Science Laboratory (MATS Lab) in the Department of Physical Therapy, reached out to senior investigator Anthony West, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience. Dr. Alibiglou studies Parkinson’s disease (PD) in humans. Dr. West studies it in animal models.

“We’re connecting the dots between human and animal research studies in Parkinsonism,” Dr. Alibiglou said. “We’re looking at the relationship between circadian rhythm dysfunction and motor impairments in people with PD.”

Working together, the clinical researcher and basic scientist have advanced their understanding.

“I hadn’t really thought much about the non-motor problems of PD, or the sleep and circadian rhythm problems,” Dr. West said. “I didn’t realize those might be investigated in rodent models. We’ve discovered that a lot of the same mechanisms we’re looking at for motor problems are involved in circadian rhythms, but in a different part of the brain.

“If we can find a connection in humans that can be explored mechanistically in the rat, it could point to new drug therapies to fight the disease.”

“I’ve learned so much from Dr. West,” Dr. Alibiglou said. “He’s opened my eyes to more complicated mechanistic changes behind gait impairment in PD.”

The study is funded by a pilot grant from Dr. Kaplan’s office, allowing the investigators to bring on a part-time postdoc and part-time research assistant.

“Without that mechanism, the wherewithal to work together and do things is very hard to come by,” Dr. West said.

Roberta Henderson, PT, PhD, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy, said the collaborations offer “incredible potential.” “They exemplify how investigators from different areas of RFU can synergistically join together to answer important research questions,” she said.

Frank DiLiberto, PT, PhD, also working in the MATS Lab, is developing projects looking at the progression and treatment of ankle osteoarthritis, as well as fall and foot ulceration prevention in people with diabetes. Planned collaborations include personnel from the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center (FHCC), fellowship-trained orthopedic foot and ankle surgeons at Illinois Bone and Joint Institute, and neurotologists at Northwestern University.

Researchers gather bimonthly with Dr. Kaplan to share their progress, brainstorm ideas and discuss possible new collaborations.

“It’s very important for leadership to be involved in the development of this initiative,” Dr. Kaplan said. “That gives us more steam. We all need to be involved in the incubation mix and bounce ideas off each other on a regular basis.”

Nancy Parsley, DPM ’93, MHPE, associate provost of interprofessional strategy and dean of the Dr. William M. Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine, which houses CLEAR, said the effort reflects RFU’s commitment to interdisciplinary research and the value that flows from it.

“The collaboration and creativity are amazing,” she said. “New possibilities for interprofessional research are emerging, which is both exciting and essential to our future.”

In another innovative team-up, Noah Rosenblatt, PhD, a new assistant professor in CLEAR and an expert in the neuromechanics of locomotion, is expanding his research in fall prevention by working with FHCC, where a dedicated committee collects data on falls within the institution and studies how they happen.

“One of the benefits of working with the FHCC is it’s both a hospital and a long-term care facility,” Dr. Rosenblatt said. “I hadn’t thought about using the hospital for anything related to falls but from my first week here, the FHCC came out and established that fall prevention is a priority.”

Fall injuries for people 65 and older in 2013 cost the nation $34 billion in direct medical costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Rosenblatt, whose research has focused on preventing falls in already high-functioning individuals, is excited about the possibilities. “You can see great immediate impact when dealing with a specific patient population that is impaired and has lower mobility,” he said.

RFU hopes that its bold interdisciplinary approach will lead to more synergistic advances in the fields of lower extremity wound and gait and fall research.

University-wide, Dr. Kaplan said, scientists, spurred in part by novel interdisciplinary collaborations, have submitted 26 multi principal investigator grant applications over the last three years with a funding success rate of 25 percent.

“CLEAR and the Proteome Center,” Dr. Kaplan said. “Movement analysis and neuroscience. CLEAR and FHCC. It’s these kinds of interdisciplinary, interinstitutional interactions that will bear fruit and that we think are very powerful. This is the future.”

Posted October 22, 2015
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