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3 teams of Rice-UTHealth faculty win research grants to study children’s health

By B.J. Almond
Rice News Staff

Three teams of Rice University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) faculty members have been awarded inaugural joint seed grants to study children’s health.

Three Rice bioengineering researchers (listed top-bottom) Jane Grande-Allen, Gang Bao, and Mike Diehl are part of a new grant program designed to grow collaborative research between researchers and clinicians from the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.  

This new grant program aims to promote excellent collaborative and interdisciplinary research programs among faculty members at Rice and researchers and clinicians from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. The emphasis of the program is on developing new collaborations between Rice and UTHealth for research on women’s or children’s health. The winning proposals were selected by a review panel on the basis of scientific merit, the strength of interdisciplinary interaction and collaboration through subsequent competitive, peer-reviewed funding.

Each team will receive a miniseed grant of up to $60,000 for its interdisciplinary research program.

This first group of winners includes:

Jane Grande-Allen, the Isabel C. Cameron Professor of Bioengineering and director of the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering at Rice. She is collaborating with Matthew Harting of UTHealth on a new therapy to help treat infants born with congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), or a hole in the diaphragm. This birth defect occurs in one in 2,500 children and leads to abnormal development of the blood vessels in the lungs The researchers will conduct experiments to learn more about the extracellular matrix, which is a specific part of the blood vessel that provides underlying structure in the lungs and may have an important role in CDH. The researchers also will focus on using special cellular secretions called extracellular vesicles as a therapy to control the changes in the extracellular matrix. 

Gang Bao, the Foyt Family Professor of Bioengineering at Rice. He is collaborating with Yang Xia of UTHealth on a genome editing-based treatment of sickle cell disease (SCD) in children. This genetic disease is caused by a mutation in the beta-globin gene and affects millions of people worldwide. In particular, 50 to 80 percent of infants born with SCD in Africa die before the age of 5. The researchers hope to develop a genetic therapy that disrupts genes that are associated with the sickling of oxygen-carrying red blood cells and sickle cell disease progression using the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR-associated protein 9 (Cas9) nuclease. Their goal is to significantly reduce the morbidity and mortality of patients with the disease.

Michael Diehl, associate professor of bioengineering and of chemistry. He is collaborating with Ramesha Papanna of UTHealth on regenerative wound healing to repair the defect caused by spina bifida while infants are still in the womb. Spina bifida is a birth defect that prevents complete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord. The researchers will apply multiparameter imaging strategies to identify and characterize interactions among several key types of cells that drive wound-healing responses within patch materials that Papanna has been developing to repair spinal defects. These analyses will provide important insights and a much-needed guide to design patch materials and optimize their use for spinal repair.

The opportunity for these seed grants on women’s and children’s health was announced on Rice’s Creative Ventures Funds website, which Provost Marie Lynn Miranda established to alert faculty about resources to support their creative scholarship and research.

More funding opportunities can be found at https://creativeventures.rice.edu.