BIO5 funding mechanisms enable catalytic discovery

brain scans
The University of Arizona’s BIO5 Institute facilitates several annual grants and awards to support researchers in pushing the boundaries of scientific innovation.
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

The BIO5 Institute supports innovative projects and new ideas to further interdisciplinary early-stage research by funding seed, pilot, and equipment grants. 

BIO5 seed funding typically exceeds $1M annually, and this year, three BIO5-fueled funding mechanisms are supplying 28 faculty members and an additional 51 co-principal investigators with $1.68M for initiatives that include how to improve MRI imaging, better understand how exercise improves aging, and uncover microbial drivers of soil volatile compounds.

Equipment Enhancement Fund
State-of-the-art equipment drives discovery and invention. The Equipment Enhancement Fund (EEF) enhances research capabilities across several departments and colleges by providing the means to purchase new equipment or upgrades for existing technology.

With the help of up to $150K, researchers can purchase equipment and upgrades that not only augment the capabilities of the core or shared use facility, but also increase their competitiveness for new external funding. 

A total of almost $730K funded seven EEF proposals through the 2022 grant cycle. With these funds, researchers plan to purchase equipment to better measure blood circulation, enhance neuropsychology research, and facilitate faster, automated screening of compounds for drug discovery. 

Optical coherence tomography (OCT) imaging equipment that will help shed light on human tissues. OCT is a non-invasive imaging technology like an ultrasound that uses near infrared light waves instead of sound to provide high-resolution images with applications that span from cancer diagnosis to retina health. 

Dr. Travis Sawyer
Dr. Travis Sawyer

Dr. Travis Sawyer, assistant professor of optical sciences, was awarded $126K to purchase a high-resolution, rapid, customizable polarization-sensitive OCT system. This state-of-the-art system will enable advanced research studies including cancer imaging in the GI tract, brain and eye imaging, and surgical guidance. 

The device will be housed in the Translational Bioimaging Resource, a Research Innovation & Impact facility in the basement of the Biosciences Research Laboratories, and promises to be greatly impactful at the University, with collaborators among five colleges and eight departments.  

“As a new faculty member, receiving support through the Equipment Enhancement Fund is extremely valuable for starting my research program - the award will enable several collaborative projects focused on advancing biomedicine using optical technology. I am honored and grateful to have such strong institutional support early in my career and I look forward to advancing the research aims of the University,” said Sawyer.

Faculty Seed Grants
To be competitive for long-term extramural funding, researchers need to obtain preliminary data that demonstrates the promise of their proposed research, as well as the feasibility of their proposed methods. The Faculty Seed Grants (FSG) provide one-time support of up to $15K to jump-start projects. 

These grants are targeted towards two different career stages. Early career researchers and assistant professors are encouraged to submit proposals that will enable them to gain independence by generating new data for future grant proposals or scholarships. Mid-career professionals and associate professors can receive funding for proposals that will also lead to greater funding opportunities in order to take their research in a new direction or develop their career to lead a future research center or institute. 

Two proposals were awarded a collective $30K in 2022, one of which is led by Dr. Jennifer Andrews

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is a complex process that results in self-sufficiency, independence, social participation, and taking on adult roles. While this life change can be exciting, young people often feel unsupported in their transition, and some aren’t treated like adults during decision-making while still being required to meet adult expectations.

Andrews, an assistant professor of pediatrics and director of research in the Division of Genetics and Developmental Pediatrics, was awarded an FSG for her proposal to adapt the Social-Ecological Model of Adolescents and Young Adult Readiness for Transition (SMART) approach to better prepare and support adolescents in their transition to adulthood. Her program focuses on four key areas of positive youth development theory: agency, assets, contribution, and enabling environments.  

“Applying for NIH grants requires pilot or proof of concept data that is challenging to generate without pilot funding when dealing with human subjects,” Andrews said. “The FSG award allows me to collect the data that I need while providing students with the opportunity to learn how to run a research project.”

Former award recipient Dr. Jennifer Stern, assistant professor of medicine, says the FSG award not only benefited her research, but paved the way for success for her grad student, as well. 

“This FSG award enabled my laboratory to embark on a new avenue of research and these studies have yielded crucial data which are now part of an NIH R01 proposal,” she said. “On top of this, my graduate student who worked on this project was awarded first prize in a poster competition for a poster which summarized this data.”

In 2020, Stern was awarded funding to collect preliminary data on the role of tissue specific glucagon (a hormone that supports blood sugar levels) receptor signaling in obesity accelerated aging, as a lack of this receptor has been shown to decrease lifespan and speed up the aging process. Her NIH R01 proposal is aimed at understanding the role of glucagon signaling in exercise-induced improvements in healthy lifespan.  

RAPID Grants
The BIO5 RAPID Grants were established to provide quick funding for interdisciplinary basic science, technology, clinical, or population research, with special emphasis on projects relating to bioinformatics and regenerative medicine. Teams of two or more interdisciplinary investigators can receive up to $50K to purchase supplies and small equipment, compensate staff and students for their time, and use core facilities. These grants are intended to assist teams in generating preliminary data for extramural grant applications.

An unprecedented 19 teams were awarded a collective $913K in 2022 for projects including understanding the effect of a common household compound on the fetal placenta, using patient-derived neurons to model pediatric epilepsy, and taking a big data approach to understanding the breakdown of immunity during Valley fever infection.

Dr. Elizabeth Hutchinson
Dr. Elizabeth Hutchinson

Dr. Elizabeth Hutchinson, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, was awarded funding to use a low-intensity version of the traditional ultrasound to provide treatment for people who have experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI). This type of injury is the result of a blow, bump, or jolt to the head, and it’s a major cause of death and disability in the U.S. 

“For the past few months, I’d been talking with other BIO5 members Drs. Kaveh Laksari, Russ Witte and Paulo Pires about running a set of experiments to try transcranial ultrasound (tUS) as a protective or regenerative therapy after TBI,” said Hutchinson. “When we saw the BIO5 RAPID award announcement, it seemed like a great chance to get the evidence we would need to proceed in this new direction and the proof-of-concept data to support and strengthen our larger federal funding proposals in this area. We were quite excited to receive the award because it allows us the opportunity to begin a line of research to develop tUS into a novel, non-pharmacologic therapy to improve brain recovery and clinical outcomes after TBI.”

About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, data and computational science, and basic science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, innovative diagnostics and devices, promising new therapies, and improved food sustainability. 

About the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF)
The Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) that helped launch BIO5 in 2001 continues to be a catalyst in enabling effective, cross-disciplinary bioscience research and innovation at the University of Arizona, where initiatives and projects are carefully chosen to align with areas of state and national need. Since 2001, over $135M has been invested in building critical facilities and research services that UArizona is leveraging today to respond to the world’s greatest scientific challenges. TRIF resources are also instrumental in funding events and programming that promotes STEM education, outreach, and training.