Empowering the Next Generation of Neuroscience Investigators at the CNTN

Jefferson Kinney, PhD, founding chair of the department of brain health at UNLV, discussed the ways a new NIH grant will assist in building a robust neuroscience research infrastructure at the Center for Neurodegeneration and Translational Neuroscience.

This is a 2-part interview. Click here for part 1.

In February, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded a $11.3 million grant to fund phase 2 of southern Nevada’s first Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE): The Center for Neurodegeneration and Translational Neuroscience (CNTN). COBRE grants are part of NIGMS’s Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which supports faculty development and research infrastructure enhancement in states with historically lower levels of support from the NIH.1

The 5-year continuation of the COBRE award builds upon a collaboration between Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), to continue the efforts of their shared CNTN. In phase 1, researchers from both institutions laid the groundwork for this research infrastructure, which consisted of data management and analysis, advanced imaging, and innovative research projects aimed at understanding the commonalities among neurodegenerative diseases.

Phase 2 of the CNTN will focus on developing these resources and processes. This includes fostering infrastructure development, developing biomarker and clinical imaging capabilities, launch a pilot project program, and guide the development of CNTN investigators. Coled by Cleveland Clinic’s Aaron Ritter, MD, and UNLV’s Jefferson Kinney, PhD, the continuation of the CNTN may pave the way for future discoveries as well as research projects that may be picked up by independent funding. Kinney, founding chair of the Department of Brain Health in the School of Integrated Health Sciences, sat down with NeurologyLive® to provide his thoughts on the lasting effect of the grant in terms of advancing the field of neurodegenerative diseases and empowering young investigators for the long-run.

NeurologyLive®: What does the pilot program include?

Jefferson Kinney, PhD: The pilot project is to further foster collaborative research here in Southern Nevada. The COBRE grants are evaluated based on how our junior investigators progress but also how we’re impacting the research capability in the region. In addition to our project leaders who have discrete research projects, the pilot grants are an opportunity for researchers that aren’t part of the center to capitalize on the resources of the center and to ask their own research questions.

Researchers at UNLV and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo center will be able to apply for one of these pilot awards, which is a year of funding to get a project underway that taps into the resources we have within the center. They become collaborators and part of this network. That allows them to take part in research projects they’re interested in, and with the capacity that we have built, not only make a stronger project, but advance their projects to a point that they might be able to secure external funding and continue it in the future.

CNTN researchers have been observing specific health disparities, what does that entail?

One of our project leaders, Samantha John, PhD, a faculty member in the department of brain health, has a project in this phase 2 COBRE that looks at health disparities in Alzheimer disease. There are racial and ethnic differences in incidence, progression, in age of onset, and it’s understudied. We all recognize that it needs to be looked at. Her project is geared towards understanding those differences, what they are, and how they can be addressed. Then more broadly, we have affiliations with the Healthy Brain Network, through Cleveland Clinic, and also through the clinical cohort, where part of the attention of this, as well as some other collaborative grants between UNLV and the Ruvo Center, are looking at where these health disparities originate from. It’s a bit of both in one discrete project. The other is one of the broad goals that comes from this center.

What lasting impacts can the success of this center and grant have?

There are a few that we’re aiming for. The first is that this infrastructure that’s being built needs to be sustainable and helps to support a long-standing research effort in this space. There are several examples of this, but one that I’m closely affiliated with is the biobank. The biobank is a piece that I worked with and supervised. What we’ve been able to do with this grant and other grants is purchase an ensemble of equipment that makes our biobank capabilities rival any other that I know of. In some respects, we have some capabilities that some other biobanks do not.

What this provides is not just for our projects and our cohort, but also for any collaborators that may be studying a different disease, there are biomarker discovery resources that were not here before. It’s already part of several other funded grants. This is going to continue to grow. The imaging core is similar to that. This clinical core is about building them to a sustainable spot so that they are useful for an array of projects. The other real metric of success for us is, how do our junior investigators fare as they transition to independently funded investigators? We had a really great success rate in phase 1 and we expect the same sort of thing in phase 2. The side project of that is that tremendous scientific discoveries come from it. If their projects are successful and they move to independence, it’s because their projects have yielded great discoveries and have advanced the science of neurodegenerative disease, both treatment and understanding the disease. We’re having an impact in that domain as well.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I try to highlight this most times I talk about COBRE because at its core it’s the reason we’re successful and how it impacts research in general. This grant is a tremendously good example of an interdisciplinary collaborative research team. We have clinicians, neuropsychologists, imaging folks, and molecular folks like myself. We run across the entire range of capabilities, but when our efforts are pointed in the same direction, we managed to develop a really strong research program. It’s because of good collaboration. That’s the interdisciplinary research theme, that’s what succeeds. This is where great discoveries come from. The collaboration between UNLV and the Cleveland Clinic here in town, the collaboration between the clinicians and the basic researchers, has given rise to some remarkable things that I’m proud of. I’m proud to have been able to be a part of it in phase 1, and no co-lead phase 2. It exemplifies how good research is done now.

Transcript was edited for clarity.

1. NIH Awards $11.3 million grant to continue funding center for neurodegeneration and translational neuroscience in southern Nevada. News release. Cleveland Clinic. February 17, 2022. https://newsroom.clevelandclinic.org/2022/02/17/nih-awards-11-3-million-grant-to-continue-funding-center-for-neurodegeneration-and-translational-neuroscience-in-southern-nevada/