College of Engineering News Room

USF Biomedical Engineering Projects Receive NIH Support

By Brad Stager

A pair of grants from the National Institutes of Health reflect the growing stature of the University of South Florida’s College of Engineering in the health-related research community. NIH-funded research has led to expanded knowledge and treatments that improve patients’ health and those are among the objectives of the grants received by USF investigators.

One grant is an award of $363,509 to fund synthetic biology-related research by Assistant Professor Lawrence Stern of the Department of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering

The other grant is for $ $391,062 to study the biology of hearing loss and is awarded to Distinguished University Professor Robert Frisina, Founding Chair of  the Department of Medical Engineering. He says that engineering programs have a lot to contribute in terms of supporting NIH research and policy goals.

“As biomedical engineers and imaging scientists, one of our main goals is to make medical procedures not only better, but more cost-effective, to improve quality of life and help lower medical costs.”

Stern's grant is a Maximizing Investigators' Research Award (MIRA) which is funding NIH to provide support research within an investigator’s lab that aligns with the mission of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). The institute is particularly supportive of basic research that promotes greater understanding of biology and how physiological functions and processes work while improving on the diagnosis and treatment options available to clinicians and patients and providing insights about disease prevention.

MIRA grants also provide researchers a degree of financial security that can provide opportunities to devote more time to conducting research and mentoring others.

The research focus of the Stern Lab is on engineering natural molecules and synthetic receptors that can be useful in treating health conditions such as some cancers and autoimmune disorders, like leukemia and lupus, with protein and cell-based targeted immunotherapies. 

Synthetic biology is an emerging technology and development of engineered biomolecules is seen as a research area of great interest. Work within the field  can range from creating new biological parts to manipulating existing natural systems. Besides expanding treatment options, work on engineered biomolecules can provide great insight into the workings of a variety of biological systems.

Titled “High-Throughput Platforms to Study Synthetic Receptors, Natural Molecules, and New Pathway Inhibitors,” Stern’s research aims to gain a better understanding of biomolecular processes to develop techniques that improve efficiency and reliability in the manipulation and engineering of cells, proteins and synthetic receptors. 

Age-related hearing loss is the decreasing ability to hear that can gradually occur over a person’s lifetime and is the subject of the NIH grant received by the Frisina Laboratory of the Global Center for Hearing & Speech Research at USF’s Research Park.

“We will develop and test novel imaging techniques in rodent animal models to diagnose a certain type of hearing loss that is not currently identifiable clinically,” says Frisina.

The project is titled “Novel Biomedical Imaging Systems for Diagnosing Hearing Loss” and it utilizes existing radioactive tracer imaging technology to reveal the state of an ear’s cochlea, a fluid-filled structure within the auditory part of the inner ear chamber. The fluid moves in response to sound vibrations that are converted to electrical activity and nerve impulses which the brain interprets as sound.

While age-related hearing loss is a widespread condition, affecting about 10 percent of the population, it is difficult to diagnose in its earliest stages and is progressive. According to Frisina,  the lab’s research hopes to change that situation by adapting existing medical technology to a novel purpose.
“We will use similar techniques that are currently used clinically in heart imaging, so they hold much promise for success, and they are safe. A first use of these innovative, potentially breakthrough procedures, is to accurately diagnose the hearing loss of interest in lab animals.” Frisina adds that clinical trials in patients could follow if the initial results are promising. 

Frisina’s research team, for this grant includes: Research Associate Professor Bo Ding, and Drs. Xiaoxia Zhu, Parveen Bazard and Mikalai Budzevich.

The NIH grant reflects the multi-disciplinary approach to research the GCHSR has conducted over the past decade. The center combines resources of USF’s Medical Engineering department with those of USF’s Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders to investigate and potentially solve health issues related to hearing loss and speech disorders.

For more information about the research conducted by Stern and Frisina you can visit their respective websites.