The Wisconsin Partnership Program’s Partnership Education and Research Committee awarded the following New Investigator Program grants in 2014:

Implementing Combination Behavioral and Biomedical HIV Prevention Strategies Through High-Risk Sexual Networks

Ryan Westergaard, MD, PhD, MPH, Medicine
Award: $99,882 over two years

Wisconsin has alarming racial disparities in the rate of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. There is strong evidence that an antiretroviral pill taken once daily can successfully prevent high-risk, HIV-negative men who have sex with men (MSM) from contracting the HIV virus, yet very few people have adopted this pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

This project will collect important information about the reasons for the low uptake of PrEP among MSM in Milwaukee and will use the information to develop a brief computerized intervention that can be used in community-based prevention settings to increase knowledge and willingness to use PrEP. The long-term objective of this research is to eliminate racial disparities in HIV in Wisconsin by delivering high-impact, multi-component HIV prevention services to young, black gay and bisexual men.

Characterization of the Role of PASTA Kinases in Beta-lactam Resistance

John-Demian Sauer, PhD, Medical Microbiology and Immunology
Award: $100,000 over two years

The societal cost of infections caused by the growing number of antibiotic-resistant organisms is estimated at more than $50 billion. Without significant investment in discovering and developing new antibiotics, previously innocuous infections will once again be life-threatening.

This project will study a novel antibiotic drug target and the compounds that inhibit it. The drug target identified by Dr. Sauer and his team re-sensitize antibiotic-resistant bacteria to penicillin, amoxicillin and other widely prescribed antibiotics.

Genetic and biochemical experiments will be used to understand the function of the drug target in Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The long-term goal of this research is to advance the development of the drug target as a new combination therapy approach to combat antibiotic resistance.

Understanding M. Tuberculosis Evolution Within and Between Hosts

Caitlin Pepperell, MD, Medicine
Award: $100,000 over two years

Drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) is a significant problem for ethnic minority populations in Wisconsin. Treatment and control of TB, especially drug-resistant strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M.tb), are critical to restraining the disease and its associated morbidity and financial costs.

The goal of this project is to better understand how M.tb evolves during human infection. This knowledge is needed to create more effective strategies for preventing drug-resistant TB. The research also will provide insights into the interaction between M.tb and its human host, with the goal of developing better vaccines and other therapies to treat and prevent TB.

Researchers will analyze data from M.tb in people with TB to understand how these bacteria evolve. This knowledge is needed to understand why TB must be treated with multiple agents, to determine whether there are alternative methods of eradicating bacterial populations, to better understand emergence of drug resistance and to develop more effective strategies of preventing its emergence.

Genetic Variants, Immune Dysregulation and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Miriam Shelef, MD, PhD, Rheumatology
Award: $99,997

Rheumatoid arthritis is a relatively common inflammatory disease that causes joint destruction, generalized inflammation and premature death despite lifelong treatment. Many genetic studies have been performed in an attempt to understand the pathophysiology of rheumatoid arthritis, but little is known about how genetic variants associated with rheumatoid arthritis dysregulate cellular activities and case disease.

This project will create a repository of clinical information, DNA and blood products that will be used to determine how genetic variants alter immune cell function in rheumatoid arthritis. The results will help develop tests to identify people at risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis as well as subsets of rheumatoid arthritis patients who might benefit from specific treatments. They also will help develop treatments that target different parts of the disease process than are currently targeted.

Repurposing FDA-Approved Drugs as Therapeutics for Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Aparna Lakkaraju, PhD, Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences
Award: $99,000

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the most common cause of irreversible blindness among older adults, and Wisconsin has one of the highest prevalence rates of advanced AMD. Approximately 50,000 state residents are living with permanent vision loss due to advanced AMD; thus, there is a critical need for new therapies that target early AMD to prevent progression to irreversible blindness.

This project will evaluate existing FDA-approved drugs as potential therapies that could benefit millions of AMD patients around the world. The long-term objectives are to use insights into cellular mechanisms of retinal degeneration to design effective therapies that can prevent vision loss and to develop new treatments for a highly prevalent disease with immense socioeconomic costs.