New $7.5M grant may aid treatment for patients with respiratory problems

Dr. Don Bolser

Dr. Don Bolser

Several faculty members in the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine’s department of physiological sciences have collectively been awarded a three-year,  $7.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to map peripheral and central nervous system pathways that control respiratory muscles.

The NIH program that has funded this grant is known as SPARC (Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions) and is a six-year program aimed at increasing knowledge of major organ systems so that new neuromodulatory devices can be developed for treatment of visceral disease processes.

Dr. Donald Bolser, a professor and lead investigator on the grant, elaborates here in a Q and A with the Veterinary Page about the research and the roles of the various team members.

VP: What is the focus of this grant?

DB: The grant is focused on mapping sensory and central nervous pathways that control lung function. A major emphasis of our project is how the parts of the nervous system that control lung function adapt and change in response to internal and external events, a process known as neuroplasticity. On its own, neuroplasticity has the potential to be part of the therapeutic response to a clinical treatment, such as the use of a medical device.

We also are investigating how the nervous system is organized to produce behaviors that allow us to protect our airways, such as coughing. The loss of effective coughing is linked to a high rate of pneumonias in patients with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, spinal injury, traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dr. Don Bolser, shown with scientist Melanie Rose in his laboratory, is one of the few scientists studying how and why we cough. (File photo)

Dr. Don Bolser, shown with scientist Melanie Rose in his laboratory, is one of the few scientists studying how and why we cough. (File photo)

VP: So is this new work that is being funded, or does the project build on existing programs and research here at UF?

DB: The grant builds on the collective work of existing faculty here at UF who have specific skill sets in the control of breathing. A centerpiece of how this team functions is the Center for Respiratory Research and Rehabilitation, headed by Dr. Gordon Mitchell, which brings together faculty who focus on respiratory research from all over the Gainesville campus. Faculty from three health center colleges — the College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Medicine, and the College of Public Health and Health Professions  — have important roles in the project. Further, the grant represents a partnership with the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida as well as the Kentucky Spinal Cord Research Institute at the University of Louisville.

VP: Who are the co-investigators on the grant and/or other key team members participating and what are their roles?

DB: In the CVM, Drs. David Baekey, Paul Davenport and Leah Reznikov are co-investigators. In the College of Public Health and Health Professions Drs. David Fuller, Elisa Gonzalez-Rothi, Karen Hegland and Gordon Mitchell are co-investigators and in the College of Medicine Drs. Neil Chheda, Peter Dziegielewski, Natalie Silver and Ronald Mandel also are co-investigators.

VP: What populations of people are going to be most affected by the work that will be performed through this grant?

DB: Patients that could benefit from the use of medical devices to strengthen respiratory muscles, such as those with spinal injuries and/or other neurological injuries and diseases would benefit from the research conducted as a result of this grant.

VP: Is there any crossover work being done that might impact animal health?

DB: Any therapeutic device that arises from this research could be adapted to help animals with respiratory insufficiency due to neurological injuries, such as spinal injury.

VP: What is the potential impact of the research that will be performed as a result of this grant?

DB: The research funded by the grant is intended to provide a basic foundation of knowledge on which neuromodulatory devices can be developed in partnership with the medical device industry. The SPARC program spans six years, with the goal of producing at least two new medical devices at the end of that time.

VP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

DB: The grant would not have been possible without the generous institutional support provided by Deans Jim Lloyd and Michael Perri from the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine and Public Health and Health Professions respectively, and UF Vice President for Research David Norton.

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