Investment will help Mizzou researchers tackle ‘grand challenges’

More than a dozen innovative projects will receive an infusion of funds through strategic investments announced today.

Aug. 08, 2019
Contact: Liz McCune,

Developing reproductive therapies to solve fertility problems. Understanding Missouri’s language and literacy needs. Killing cancer while preserving healthy tissue. Making sense of Big Data. These are a few examples of the collaborative, innovative projects that will be taking off at the University of Missouri thanks to an infusion of strategic funds.

The investments — a combination of funds from MU and the University of Missouri System — were announced earlier today by UM System President Mun Choi. Choi said up to $20.5 million in funds would be invested in 19 projects across the UM universities. MU researchers will lead 12 of those projects with a total funding level of $10.6 million ($5.9 million in system funds and $4.7 million in MU funds). An additional project, co-led by researchers at MU and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, will receive up to $5 million ($2.5 million from the UM System and $2.5 million between MU and UMKC).

“These investments will help to catalyze the University of Missouri’s efforts to positively impact of lives of Missourians and people all over the world,” Chancellor Alexander N. Cartwright said. “They will also help bolster faculty research programs so that they can become more competitive in the pursuit of federal and private dollars, growing the Mizzou enterprise and supporting the state’s economy. I am confident the interdisciplinary approach outlined in these projects will strengthen our collaboration in academic departments across campus and showcase the power of investing in higher education.”

The investments represent a continuing effort to lead the way in solving the world’s grand challenges, and many of them tied to the NextGen Precision Health Initiative and Institute to advance lifesaving research in cancer, stroke, muscular dystrophy, autism, traumatic brain injuries and other challenging conditions.

The announcement dovetails with MU’s plan, announced by Cartwright in 2018, to double research funding and expand creative activities to impact the state of Missouri and beyond. The invested funds will help train the next generation of leaders to meet workforce needs, create breakthrough discoveries to improve the human condition and convey the benefits of teaching and research to Missouri communities.

“This investment advances the University of Missouri’s mission to support research that will serve the ever-evolving needs of Missourians,” said MU Provost Latha Ramchand. “It’s our job as administrators to use innovative approaches and strategic collaborations to find solutions to key challenges.”

Research supported by the investment will lead to advancements in medicine and public health. Deborah Anderson, an associate professor in MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, studies insects and arachnids, including mosquitos and ticks that can cause outbreaks of disease in both humans and animals.

“For many of these infections, such as the Heartland virus that was originally found in Missouri 10 years ago, effective diagnostics, vaccines and treatments are lacking,” Anderson said. “The research program enabled by this award will address these important gaps in medicine.”

Another issue that will be addressed is America’s deteriorating civil infrastructure systems, such as roads and bridges. Bill Buttlar, the Glen Barton Chair of Flexible Pavement Technology at the MU College of Engineering, is excited about the opportunity his interdisciplinary team will have to solve one of the more pressing challenges in transportation.

“We will be able to bring together researchers from diverse fields to produce designs and prototypes of a complex transportation system that serves everyone and is an upgrade to our existing system — more connected, resilient, affordable, aesthetic, sustainable, and of course, safer,” Buttlar said. “We will also be able to match funds with stakeholders such as the Missouri Department of Transportation and some of the big industry movers-and-shakers in the new transportation economy.”

Buttlar’s team also will help build and strengthen UM System research teams to successfully compete for National Science Foundation funding and support from industry partners. Often, to be considered a candidate for NSF funding, researchers must demonstrate that they have a diverse team of experts collaborating across multiple disciplines and organizations.

Born out of these funding opportunities will be the collaboration between the University of Missouri Research Reactor and the NextGen Precision Health Institute, which is the anchor facility for the NextGen initiative. Together, they will help accelerate medical breakthroughs for diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This neurological disease, characterized by continual muscle breakdown and weakness, currently has no cure.

“MURR develops lifesaving radiopharmaceuticals that treat people with cancer and other diseases,” said David Robertson, executive director at MURR. “The collaborative expertise this project provides will support the infrastructure and research of the NextGen Precision Health Institute.”

In a similar effort, Tim Glass, professor and chair of the MU Department of Chemistry, will work with faculty in his own department as well as in MU’s departments of biochemistry, radiology, veterinary medicine and MURR to collaboratively develop radiopharmaceuticals.

“The impacts of our research will be tremendous — our proposal will lead to more collaborative grants and allow us to develop new imaging and therapy agents for cancer, such as prostate and lung cancers, as well as highly resistant bacterial infections,” Glass said.

This investment supports the university’s vision to advance opportunities for success and well-being for Missouri, the nation and the world through transformative teaching, research, innovation, engagement and inclusion. Both MU and the UM System have identified research as a key investment area along with areas such as affordability. Growing the research enterprise helps to attract research dollars, distinguished faculty members and students, many of whom engage in research as undergraduates.

“These projects will help address grand challenges facing our world, foster collaboration systemwide and provide instruments and facilities to enhance faculty research,” said Mark McIntosh, MU vice chancellor for research and economic development and UM System vice president for research and economic development. “I am proud of the investments we are making in research to provide meaningful outcomes. I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together.”

The following MU research projects are divided into two categories: research supporting the NextGen Precision Health Initiative and Institute, and research serving other key priorities of the UM System’s four universities.

Research that supports the NextGen Precision Health Initiative and Institute:

  • MU’s Prasad Calyam and University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Praveen Rao are leading a project to develop a hyper-converged computational hub that will be capable of analyzing and storing massive datasets to support the NextGen Precision Health Initiative as well as other collaborative research projects across the UM System. They are joined by Zhu Li and Viviana Grieco with UMKC, Peter Tonellato, Deepthi Rao, Timothy Middelkoop, Kannappan Palaniappan, Satish Nair, Ye Duan and Trupti Joshi with MU, as well as Missouri S&T’s Sanjay Madria. In the coming months, university leaders will coordinate with Rao and Calyam and other faculty colleagues to leverage this investment to develop the NextGen Data Analytics Center with donors and industry partners.
  • MU’s David Robertson is leading a project to provide critical infrastructure and collaborative expertise to researchers who have ideas that can attract national funding but lack the personal expertise or laboratory facilities to fully develop a radiopharmaceutical product. The long-term vision is to develop a research pipeline where radiopharmaceutical agents can be developed by faculty systemwide, tested in cell cultures and small animals at the Institute for Nano and Molecular Innovation (INMI), then in large animals at the Veterinary Health Center, with eventual in-person studies at the NextGen Precision Health Institute. Robertson is joined by Jeff Smith, Silvia Jurisson, Jeffrey Bryan and Tom Quinn.
  • MU’s Michael Chapman is leading a project to investigate fundamental bio-molecular interactions and enable pharmaceutical development. Chapman is joined by Donald Burke-Aguero, Jack Tanner, Tommi White, Lloyd Sumner and Xiaolan Yao. In the coming months, university leaders will coordinate with Chapman and other faculty colleagues to leverage this investment to develop a center of excellence in electron microscopy with donors and industry partners.
  • MU’s Wesley Warren is leading a project to provide researchers with the latest disruptive technology that offers quantum enhancements in speed, volume and quality of DNA sequencing at a significantly lower cost. Warren is joined by Leslie Lyons, Robert Schnabel, Kevin F. Staveley-O’Carroll, Douglas C. Miller and Peter J. Tonellato.
  • MU’s Timothy Glass is leading a project aimed at utilizing the MU Research Reactor (MURR) to discover new radiopharmaceutical agents and bring cancer imaging and therapy agents to patients faster. Glass is joined by Charles Maitz, Dave Robertson, Jeff Smith and Silvia Jurisson.
  • MU’s Donald Burke- Agüero is leading a project to develop therapies that will kill cancer tumors while preserving healthy tissue by using DNA-like molecules to recognize and bind to cancer targets. Burke- Agüero is joined by Mark Daniels, Diego Avella, Jusuf Kaifi, Jeff Smith and David Porciani.
  • MU’s Kerry McDonald is leading a project to better understand heart failure progression in patients with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a genetic disorder of progressive muscular weakness. McDonald hopes to target the most effective therapy for a patient’s unique genetic background. McDonald is joined by Maike Krenz.
  • MU’s David Gozal is leading a project to better understand the cellular connection between obesity and vascular disease, and to develop new targeted therapies for cardiovascular disease. Gozal is joined by Leila Kheirandish-Gozal, Abdelnaby Khalyfa, Jaume Padilla, Luis A. Martinez-Lemus and Camila Manrique.
  • MU’s Thomas Spencer is leading a project to open new possibilities to study early pregnancy, develop reproductive therapies and solve fertility problems that affect half of all women worldwide during their life. Spencer is joined by Toshihiko Ezashi, Amanda Patterson, Laura Schulz, Danny Schust and Bret Ulery.
  • MU’s Deborah Anderson is leading a project to study insect vectors to better understand the mechanics that drive the spread of disease and develop new approaches for diagnosis and treatment. Anderson is joined by Brenda Beerntsen, Donald Burke-Agüero, Deborah Finke, Alexander Franz and Bret Ulery.

Serving other key priorities of the UM System’s four universities:

  • MU’s Bill Buttlar is leading a project to build and strengthen UM System research teams that can successfully compete for National Science Foundation funding and gain support from industry and other agencies. Buttlar is joined by MU’s Bimal Balakrishnan, Tojan Rahhal and Enos Inniss, Missouri S&T’s Kamal Khayat and UMKC’s Tony Luppino. This project also serves as a co-investment for the newly created Missouri Center for Transportation Innovation, a new UM System center involving all four universities, to support transportation research and development needs of Missouri Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
  • MU’s Chi-Ren Shyu is leading a project to create innovative tools to efficiently organize geospatial resource data in a community-based repository for use across the UM System and beyond. Shyu is joined by MU’s Eileen Avery, Grant Scott, Lincoln Sheets and Henry X. Wan, UMKC’s Douglas Bowles and Missouri S&T’s Stephen S. Gao.
  • MU’s Candace Kuby is leading a project to establish a national research center that will work to understand and support Missouri’s language and literacy education needs in the modern era of social media. Kuby is joined by Matt Gordon, Mike Metz, Rob Petrone, Claire Syler and Angie Zapata.

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