UW-Madison: Five big ideas to fill out Wisconsin Institute for Discovery portfolio

CONTACT: John D. Wiley, 608-265-4927, [email protected]

MADISON – Capping an intensely competitive process, five proposals from University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty have been selected to form the intellectual heart of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID).

WID is the public half of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, complemented by the private Morgridge Institute for Research. Both entities will occupy the new interdisciplinary research facility now under construction in the 1300 block of University Avenue.

Chosen from a final pool of 12 proposals, the five research themes and their faculty leaders selected for inclusion in the new institute are:

– Epigenetics or how genes are activated or inactivated, led by John M. Denu, a professor of biomolecular chemistry in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

– Tissue engineering scaffold research, led by Lih-Sheng Turng, UW-Madison professor of mechanical engineering.

– Health Technology Design in the Living Environments Laboratory aimed at accelerating the development of personal care diagnostic and therapeutic technology, led by Patricia Flatley Brennan, professor of industrial and systems engineering and nursing.

– Optimization in Biology and Medicine, a mathematical approach to minimize or maximize the variables of a given subject, led by Michael C. Ferris, professor of computer science.

– Systems Biology, an integrated, “system level” understanding of living organisms, spearheaded by John Yin, professor of chemical and biological engineering.

Interim WID Director John D. Wiley, who led the selection process with the WID Program Committee, says the selection of the five research themes to occupy the new institute is a key step in charting the long-term future of a novel interdisciplinary center.

“It was a difficult selection process,” Wiley notes. “We had 12 excellent proposals, and narrowing the list to a select few was hard. But we feel we have identified five areas of research that fit neatly into the mission of WID and will mesh with and enhance the goals and activities of the Morgridge Institute for research.”

The selection of the five WID research themes concludes a process that began nearly three years ago with a call for proposals for the Discovery Seed Grant Initiative, which jump-started WID programming by funding eight projects from a campuswide competition.

The full WID research theme competition, according to Wiley, represented a rare chance for faculty to construct novel programs of research. A key goal of the new institute is to intermingle faculty, staff and students from across campus in interdisciplinary research that can be translated beyond academia and help underpin the future economy of the state.

The selection process for the WID research themes, beginning with a call that elicited 26 pre-proposals, was intense and rigorous, Wiley explains. The WID Program Committee selected 12 pre-proposals for submission as full proposals. Submitted full proposals were peer-reviewed by internal and external expert reviewers, with each proposal receiving at least one external and two internal reviews. Final selection was then made by the WID Program Committee.

“All 26 of the pre-proposals were excellent, so selecting 12 finalists was already a difficult process. Naming only five themes from among the 12 outstanding finalists was even more difficult,” says Wiley, noting that the committee was convinced that many of the good ideas and proposed projects from the pre-proposals and final proposals will be engaged with WID and the Morgridge Institute, regardless of location on campus.

The WID Program Committee included Chancellor Biddy Martin; Provosts or Interim Provosts Patrick Farrell, Julie Underwood and Paul DeLuca; Graduate School Dean Martin Cadwallader; WID Interim Directors Marsha Mailick Seltzer and Wiley; Morgridge Institute Director Sangtae Kim; College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy; professor and chair of bacteriology Jo Handelsman; professor and chair of physiology Rick Moss; and professor of computer sciences Miron Livny.

The successful faculty proposers will occupy space in the new WID facility, which is being constructed with support from the state of Wisconsin, UW-Madison alumni John and Tashia Morgridge and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Wiley says the selection of the WID research themes caps a process set in motion by the visions of alumni donors John and Tashia Morgridge, Gov. Jim Doyle, the WARF and Morgridge Institute boards of directors, and WARF managing director Carl Gulbrandsen. “I would like to thank all of these people and the organizations that have helped to make this possible,” Wiley says. “We are well on our way to establishing exciting new programs of research that will significantly enhance our research portfolio as well as the reputation of our university and state.”

Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Research Themes

– Polymer Bio-Nanocomposite Scaffolds for Tissue Engineering

Stem cells have enormous promise for regenerating or replacing tissues, but these restorative applications must satisfy the need to hold individual cells in a lifelike, three-dimensional manner, rather than as a formless glob. The Bionates theme will address this challenge by merging approaches from nanotechnology, polymer science, and composite material engineering to produce lifelike scaffolds for tissue replacement.

Led by Lih-Sheng (Tom) Turng, a professor of mechanical engineering, the team’s interdisciplinary approach combines engineering and the life sciences to develop biological substitutes to restore, maintain or improve the function of diseased or damaged human tissues. The team will use a Web-based management system to preserve knowledge and make information accessible and transparent. Within three to five years, the team intends to mass-produce scaffolds that will induce stem cells to transform themselves into the desired specialized cells. In the longer term, the team intends to test the use of nanotechnology to deliver drugs and repair diseased tissues.

– Systems Biology

The explosion of knowledge about biology on the molecular scale – viruses, proteins and DNA – has not been accompanied by equivalent insight into how molecular interactions affect organisms on the larger scale: how they survive, multiply and interact.

The goal of WID’s Systems Biology theme is to enhance an integrated, “systems level” understanding of organisms, through the use of quantitative approaches adapted from mathematics, engineering and computer science. A hierarchical understanding of living systems – from entire genomes to organisms to populations – has enormous potential for solving human health problems such as preventing resistance to antibiotics and treating cancer.

Under the leadership of John Yin, professor of chemical and biological engineering, the system biology theme will employ an integrated approach to biological systems, translate research advances into practical treatments, and enrich related campus activities in the social sciences, humanities and arts. With a focus on the interactions between microbes and their hosts, the team will explore how, for example, the human intestinal tract and its large population of microbes persist in a mutually beneficial relationship. By building models based on genomic and other information, the theme will attempt to predict how molecular interactions affect cellular metabolism, cell-to-cell signaling and gene expression.

– Living Environments Laboratory

As health care moves from institutions into the home, diagnostic and therapeutic devices must work in a challenging new environment. The laboratory will accelerate the development and deployment of personal care and therapeutic technologies, with the aim of supporting individuals and families in the detection, recognition and management of health problems.

Guided by Patricia Brennan, professor of nursing and chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, the team will use expertise in biomedical engineering, fabric and environmental design, computer science and information science. The Living Environments Laboratory will establish and use a simulated home environment to explore the impact of the non-institutional contexts on tomorrow’s health technologies, with the goal of enabling patients to take better care of themselves.

One focus will be to learn how individuals now access and manage health information at home, and then propose improvements that are workable in the real world. A second focus will be to find improvements in the many health care technologies, ranging from blood glucose measurement to meters that gauge respiratory function, that are moving into the home, where they must be adapted to different circumstances and different users.

– Epigenetics

The completion of the Human Genome Project – the mapping of the entire set of human genes – has set the stage for deeper investigation into gene regulation, the mechanisms that control how and when genes are activated or silenced. This control system, called epigenetics, explains how genetically identical stem cells can specialize into every cell in the body. Epigenetics is also involved in numerous processes lumped together as “aging,” but little is known about the mechanisms of epigenetic control.

WID’s epigenetics theme, led by John Denu, professor of biomolecular chemistry in the School of Medicine and Public Health, will harness resources across campus to explore how alterations in normal gene activation and silencing lead to tissue dysfunction, cancer, autoimmune disease, and neurodegenerative, respiratory and behavioral disorders. The epigenetics theme will focus on the code used to direct DNA translation into proteins, and explore how that code may predispose certain people to disease. As part of its educational component, the theme will display developing amphibians, showing the critical role played by epigenetics in the development of virtually all multicellular organisms.

– Optimization in Biology and Medicine

In mathematics, optimization is the process of maximizing benefits with a specific set of constraints. In medicine and everyday life, optimization is ubiquitous: Seeking the maximum return on investments and striving for the best rate of cure in cancer treatment are both examples of optimization.

Under the leadership of Michael Ferris, professor of computer science, the optimization theme will collaborate with economists, behavioral scientists and humanists to apply the basic analytical tools of optimization to a wide range of topics, including radiation treatment for cancer, data analysis in biomedical experiments, computation using large databases, and improved techniques for dealing with uncertainty (answering “what if…?” questions).