From Cells to Communities - from Training Grants to Center Grants...What's Next
It has been a very long while since I last reported on the goings-on at Braveman BioMed. As I said in my last update, "I can assure you that it hasn’t been because of laziness or that I have nothing to report." Quite the contrary…we have been working diligently and, judging from feedback we’ve received, successfully with scientists and organizations to help them realize their goals and in the process to attain excellence in research and funding. But things have changed and, from my perspective, in a very good and interesting ways.
It has now been a little over eight years since launching Braveman BioMed Consultants in January 2009...it has been quite a trip and the time has sped by very quickly or so it seems. While the types of consulting arrangements that we've completed have been diverse, most of our recent work is in the area of grant writing. We continue providing individual and group grant writing assistance, leading grant writing workshops to groups ranging from 5 individuals to those consisting of more than 100, participating with others on a team of writers in preparing both large and small grant applications, working with pre- and post-docs on fellowship applications, working with experienced scientists with years of experience and success in obtaining R01 support who are now developing center applications, organizing mock peer reviews prior to submitting grants, and providing reviewer/commentator feedback for grant applications prior to their submission. To put it susincintly, there's never a dull moment and it has been energizing.
So what has changed? Not surprisingly, there have been many changes in science over the past several years. Years ago in a keynote speech I gave at a scientific meeting I mentioned that it seemed that, over the years, the half-life of an idea capturing the attention of biomedical researchers had gotten shorter, going from years to months or weeks. Biomedical research continues to progress at breakneck speed and that has been reflected in the topics covered in the applications that we’ve worked on over the past couple of years. This, in my opinion, is very good. It indicates that at any point in time science is flexible, reflecting and responding to emerging information.
One area that, for a variety of personal and professional reasons, I have found particularly engaging is epigenetics. As an animal behaviorist an interest of mine has been on the evolution of behavior. Until the emergence of epigenetics, the biological mechanisms underlying the evolution of behavior have been discussed but not studied directly. As a result missing from the analysis of how and/or whether an extant behavior has evolved from behaviors exhibited by ancestors is an answer to the question how newly acquired behaviors are transmitted between generations. Current theories rely on assuming that extant behaviors in other species thought of as being in the evolutionary line of homo sapiens reflect the behavior of earlier but extinct forms. While the anthropological evidence for structural homology between extinct and extant species is available, there isn't a parallel for behavior thus leaving open the question whether observable behavior of extant species is structurally or functionally equivalent to the behavior of ancient extinct species.
The logical leap in assuming the behavioral homology between living and extinct species complicates an already very complex picture. For example, behavior in a given situation represents more than the stimulus complex faced by the organism and to a large extent is the result of a myriad of underlying physiological processes as well as past experience encoded in neural circuitry. More to the point, until recently the genetic mechanism(s) required by Darwinian evolutionary theory to account for transmission of changes in behavior from one generation to the next, that is to provide an evolutionary transcript, hasn't been addressed.
Epigenetics now provides a possible mechanism by which behavioral changes resulting from changing environmental requirements are captured not on individual genes but through modification of gene methylation processes and subsequently through gene pathways. Moreover, evidence is also available that the new processes get passed on to subsequent generations. Thus we now have a way of showing that behavioral changes linked to environmental influences occurring in a parental generation are not only expressed in the offspring of the parents but also show up in their grandchildren. And this happens in behaviors that can have significance for the individual such as depression, anxiety, and social behavior, any of which alone or taken together can have important implications for survival of species.
In the realm of biomedical research, we have worked with several groups using an epigenetic approach. One group is examining the epigenetics of metabolic diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Another investigator is examining the contribution of epigenetic factors involved in bone formation. So far all have been successful in obtaining NIH support for their research.
Another area that seems to be of increasing interest to biomedical scientists is the biomedical consequences of climate change either directly by influencing the immediate and/or delayed health impacts of extreme changes in climate patterns or indirectly through its impact on the health value of the foods we eat.
Another development in research has been a focus on prevention of suicide, particularly in adolescents. The CDC reports that as of 2014, the most recent date for which statistics are available, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens between 15 and 19 years, replacing homicide. While accidents account for the most deaths in this population, an unknown percent of what are termed as accidental deaths may be attributable to suicide so the numbers may even be worse than those that are reported. From the CDC report: "Data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System show that among high school students, the prevalence of attempting suicide remained flat from 1999 to 2013.1 Rather, suicide attempts today appear more likely to result in death because teenagers have shifted to more lethal methods of self-harm—a trend that has alarming implications.2"
The report continues that the suicide rates between 1999-2001 and 2012-2014 "... rose fastest for American Indian and Alaska Native girls (60 percent increase), and rates rose by more than 50 percent for both non-Hispanic Black/African American and non-Hispanic white teenage girls...Among boys, only non-Hispanic Black/African American teenagers had lower suicide rates in 2012-2014 than in 1999-2001. As with girls, rates rose fastest for American Indian and Alaska Native teenage boys, and rates also increased for non-Hispanic white boys. Rates remained stable for Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic teenage boys...Overall, the highest teenage suicide rates are among American Indian and Alaska Native teenagers. This may be partially explained by their greater concentrations in rural areas, where the risk of suicide is much greater.... Yet, even in rural areas, American Indian and Alaska Native teenagers have extraordinarily high rates of suicide, especially as compared with other racial/ethnic groups living in those areas."
BBMC worked with several groups to develop grant applications aimed at developing interventions to reduce suicides among American Indian adolescents living in various parts of the US. A theme common to all of the applications was to develop meaningful interventions aimed at restoring resilience in adolescents which in turn would prevent suicide and suicidal ideation. The current scientific literature on suicide prevention suggests that interventions focused on building resilience does so by increasing adherence to cultural spirituality, meaningful community participation, and participation in traditional practices. The research projects that we helped with focus on determining whether reintroducing traditional values and practices into the lives of adolescents would reduce suicide. Again we have been able to help several of these application obtain support for their research.
Finally, a few words about the 900 pound gorilla looming in the room...what will happen to funding now that the new administration has made public its budget plan to cut the budget of NIH and other federal science agencies? First, keep in mind that the budget plan issued by the President is just that...his administration's plan. It is not the budget. Congress is responsible for creating the budget and even though both legislative and executive branches are controlled by Republicans, there can be differences between what the President wants and what the Congress gives him. So the short answer is that at this time no one knows what will happen to the NIH budget.
The longer answer is that people are working to keep the NIH budget at least stable and even with some growth to keep up with the pace of progress in science. Recent reports are that various Congressional committees are working toward the goal of ensuring that there will be funding to continue supporting growth in research. But as of today, as I've already noted, no one knows what will happen and at this point no decisions have been made. However, there is one certainty. That is, if you don't apply for a grant you will not receive any fundingeven if the NIH or other science agencies budgets are frozen or reduced. So our advice and that from NIH staff is don't stop submitting applications if you want any chance to get support for your research.
In the meantime, don't forget that April 22 is Earth Day and the March for Science in Washington, DC as well as in other sites around the country. If you haven't already registered, please do so at https://www.marchforscience.com. Remember... numbers count, particularly to politicians, so please be there...I will. And if you have the opportunity to attend a town hall meeting with your Congressman/woman and/or Senator, do so and raise the issue of the importance of science to progress in everyday life and the importance of the stability of funding for research. It doesn't happen by itself and starts at the grass roots level.
Finally, we offer our sincere thanks and gratitude to those who over the past eight years have allowed us to help develop their research plans and grant applications. It has been exciting, interesting and stimulating and we hope it continues.
And to those of you who are not familiar with us and might be interested in using our services or are just curious about what we do, how we do it, and why we do it to we encourage you to contact us either by email, phone or using the form on this site.