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Research projects on sea snails, drunk mice get stimulus funds

Look to aid study of human ailments

By Kimberly Miller
Cox Newspapers / August 14, 2009

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Drunk mice, venomous sea snails, elderly turtles.

It’s not “Aesop’s Fables.’’ It’s your federal stimulus dollars at work.

The three are among a handful of Florida Atlantic University studies being paid for with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money from the National Institutes of Health.

And while humorous at first mention, the research is probing the serious issues of treating alcoholism, turning poisonous venom into medicine, and studying what allows freshwater turtles to grow old without suffering cellular damage that leads to the very human afflictions of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

A fourth stimulus-funded project at FAU is looking for ways to stop disease in aging eyes.

“They wanted innovative ideas that were an extension of a preexisting grant,’’ said Marc Kantorow, an FAU biomedical science professor who is studying ways to prevent macular degeneration. “This is not just wise for research; it’s helping employ people in South Florida.’’

So far, NIH has channeled about $625,360 in federal stimulus money to the university. The intoxicated mice project garnered $8,400.

Statewide, six public universities have received more than $11 million from NIH recovery act funding this year. Many of the grants are two-year projects and will bring in more money next year.

The NIH received $10.4 billion in stimulus money to distribute nationwide. While some research projects were identified by the NIH as “highly meritorious’’ and received automatic funding, others required scientists to apply for supplemental grants.

Kantorow already had a five-year, $1.5 million NIH grant to study how to prevent the loss of eyesight as humans age.

With the $189,788 stimulus grant, he was able to continue paying an assistant and explore a side area of research that looks at why a naturally occurring protein that protects and repairs the eye stops functioning as humans get older.

If he figures out why the protein falters, he may be able to eventually discover ways to keep it healthy.

Robert Stackman, an FAU psychology professor, was able to hire two graduate students this summer to work on his alcohol-related research.

With part of a larger grant awarded in 2005, Stackman is looking at what parts of the brain are affected by ethanol, the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, and their connection with the ability to navigate. Think drunken driving.

Knowing exactly where in the brain alcohol’s distortion of navigation occurs could lead to treatments for alcoholism.

FAU researchers Sarah Milton and Frank Mari also received NIH stimulus money.

Milton is continuing her study on age-related cell damage in freshwater turtles. The turtles’ ability to reduce damage may translate into treatments for human neurodegenerative diseases.

Mari could also find treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as strokes, if his research on the effects of cone snail venom on the human central nervous system is successful.

He said his studies would have been stalled for two years without the stimulus money.

“Getting NIH grants is very competitive,’’ Mari said. “This allows me to hire people I could not hire and who can now have important contributions to the economy.’’