October 16, 2009
Biology Professors Receive NIH Grants for Life-Altering
Despite the fact that more that 325,000 researchers apply for
50,000 highly competitive grants each year from the National
Institutes of Health (NIH), two faculty members at St. John’s
University were recently awarded separate research grants to
continue their scientific research.
Ales Vancura, Ph.D and Rachel Zufferey, Ph.D, both Biological
Sciences professors in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and
Sciences, were selected based on their grant applications,
scientific qualifications, and the health relevance of their
Their grants, made possible by the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), are part of the
84 percent of NIH’s annual budget that is distributed to
researchers at more than 3,000 universities, medical schools, and
other research institutions around the world. They intend to use
their grant money to continue that research, and enhance new
medical discoveries, improve the health of society, prevent
diseases and ultimately save lives.
It’s All in the Genes
Dr. Vancura’s research project, “The Role of Phospholipase C in
Transcriptional Regulation,” focuses on the regulation of chromatin
structure that affects diverse cellular functions such as gene
expression, DNA replication and repair cell proliferation.
Throughout his career and with continuous funding by NIH, he has
taught at the University for more than a decade and has dedicated
his career to researching the regulation of cell growth.
His $245,000 NIH grant will allow him to employ three doctoral
students and one graduate student to engage in data collection and
experiments and attend conferences and seminars.
“Research is inherently a competitive, international activity,” the
Biological Sciences professor explains. “Research in biomedical
sciences, with its ultimate goal of improving the living conditions
of humankind, is a worthy activity for our students to be engaged
Dr. Zufferey received a two-year, $100,000 preliminary grant to
support the study of a human parasite known as Leishmania, a
unicellular parasite found in sub-tropical countries that causes
skin lesions and affects the liver, spleen, ears, nose and throat
in humans. Her research will attempt to determine the mechanisms of
the drug miltefosine, a clinical trial medicine, against the
diseases that this parasite causes.
“The objective of this ARRA NIH grant is to identify at least two
enzymes that are inhibited by the drug,” she explains. “This
parasite affects many sub-tropical Third World countries. There is
no market for drug companies so most of this type of research is
done by universities.”
Dr. Zufferey hopes the research conducted through the NIH grant
will aid in helping the economically disadvantaged in
underdeveloped countries. “By understanding the how this drug
inhibits the parasite, we can then begin to market to other
countries,” she continues.
She also points out that assisting the poor is at the heart of the
St. John’s mission. “If we can better understand how this drug
kills the parasite, we can develop better, in expensive drugs and
hopefully market to poor countries,” she notes.