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GEM Awards Funding to New Projects on Human Microbiome

Published April 26, 2017

Three studies focused on improving our understanding of the human microbiome were awarded funding through the second round of research pilots supported by the Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM).

“In this round of pilot projects, we were able to focus on the intersection of the genome and the microbiome. This allows us to understand how microbes affect us and our health.”
GEM co-director and associate professor of biochemistry

The projects will study how the relationship between the human body and the collection of microorganisms that reside on or within it affect our risk for certain diseases.

Understanding the connection these microorganisms have with our bodies may enable the development of personalized medicine and empower individuals to have greater control over their health.

Interdisciplinary Collaborations Stimulated by GEM

“In this round of pilot projects, we were able to focus on the intersection of the genome and the microbiome. This allows us to understand how microbes affect us and our health. It also starts to answer how our own genes affect the environment in which human microbes have to live and survive,” says Jennifer A. Surtees, PhD, GEM co-director and associate professor of biochemistry.

“We are thrilled that all three funded projects resulted from strong interdisciplinary collaborations that were stimulated by GEM.”

Along with Surtees, GEM is led by Timothy F. Murphy, MD, executive director, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research and SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine; and Norma J. Nowak, PhD, co-director, professor of biochemistry and executive director of UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.

The funded projects involve faculty teams from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the School of Public Health and Health Professions and the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Tracking Global Spread of Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug

One project studies a lethal form of the bacterium Klebsiella pneumoniae (hvKP), which is spreading across the Asian Pacific Rim.

Unlike most Klebsiella infections in Western countries, which typically cause illness in health care settings, hvKP can cause serious life- and organ-threatening infections in healthy individuals living in the community. Worse, hvKP has become increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

Although all ethnic groups have suffered infections from hvKP, people of Asian descent are disproportionately affected. UB researchers will study the density of infections at various geographic locations to understand whether the higher prevalence among Asian ethnic groups is due to more frequent exposure, genetics or another factor.

The results could lend insight into the risk of hvKP infection, assist in understanding how it develops, help identify populations at risk and improve knowledge on prevention.

The study is led by Thomas A. Russo, MD, professor and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases; and Peter L. Elkin, MD, chair and professor of biomedical informatics.

Studying Skin Microbiome in Psoriasis, Eczema Patients

Another project investigates the role that skin plays in our vulnerability to autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, which affect hundreds of millions of people. 

Immune responses to the wide range of microbial organisms colonized on and within human skin have led to a number of major genetic adaptions. Yet, researchers have not solved why autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, such as psoriasis and eczema, are common and not eliminated from the general population by natural selection.

The study will analyze the genetic variations and microbiomes of non-affected and affected skin samples from psoriasis and eczema patients.

The principal investigators are Omer Gokcumen, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the UB College of Arts and Sciences; and Animesh A. Sinha MD, PhD, Rita M. and Ralph T. Behling Professor and chair of the Department of Dermatology.

Additional collaborators include Kristina Seiffert, MD, research assistant professor of dermatology; Daniel Gaile, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions; David Tritchler, DSc, research professor of biostatistics; and Ran Blekhman, PhD, assistant professor in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

Examining Fungi That Cause Serious Illness

The third project examines three pathogenic fungi that cause serious illness among people with weakened immune systems. 

Over the course of an infection, pathogenic fungi continuously adjust to the human body, changing as it moves to different areas. The microbes sense and adapt to the various nutrient environments within their hosts, and respond with the necessary gene expression patterns.

One way the fungi sense nutrients is through the levels of common metabolites, such as NAD+, which is required by enzymes called sirtuins to repress gene expression. However, it remains poorly understood how NAD+ acts as a signaling molecule.

The researchers’ goal is to determine which genes are regulated by sirtuins and are activated when NAD+ is low, and they aim to learn how nutrient availability influences NAD+ concentrations.

The study is led by Laura Rusche, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Additional investigators include John C. Panepinto, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and immunology; and Tao Liu, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry.

GEM Community Part of $9 Million Initiative

The pilot grants, which total more than $110,000, award researchers up to $50,000 to develop innovative projects focused on the microbiome. The funds support up to one year of research.

GEM is an interdisciplinary community of UB faculty and staff dedicated to advancing research on the genome and microbiome. It is one of UB’s three Communities of Excellence, a $9 million initiative to harness the strengths of faculty and staff from fields across the university to confront the challenges facing humankind through research, education and engagement.