A trio of promising and exceptionally talented scientists at Oregon Health & Science University has earned unrestricted funding to extend leading-edge research to ultimately improve human health.
Recipients of the 2023 Faculty Excellence and Innovation Awards, made possible by the Silver Family Innovation Fund, include Miguel Marino, Ph.D., Carmem Pfeifer, D.D.S., Ph.D., and Aaron Grossberg, M.D., Ph.D.
“Each of these scientists embody OHSU’s mission to improve the health and well-being of people in Oregon and beyond,” said Peter Barr-Gillespie, Ph.D., OHSU chief research officer and executive vice president. “The award recognizes their substantial achievements to date, and provides them with future resources that will enable them to develop new innovative and exciting research projects.”
Each recipient receives a total of $750,000 over three years, with a particular focus on scientists and physicians who represent the next generation of faculty leaders at OHSU. Awardees are early- or mid-stage investigators of exceptional creativity and promise.
OHSU deans, center and institute directors, and department chairs nominate candidates from their respective units, and applications are reviewed by prominent scientists from institutions across the country.
Miguel Marino, Ph.D.
Associate professor of family medicine, OHSU School of Medicine; and, associate professor, OHSU-Portland State University School of Public Health
Latinos comprise the largest minority group in the United States and in Oregon and are estimated to increase to 29% of the U.S. population by 2060; yet, failure to prevent and treat even common medical conditions leads to devastating health inequities for this demographic.
Marino, a first-generation Mexican American scientist and associate professor of biostatistics, will use the award in collaboration with John Heintzman, M.D., M.P.H., to establish a new center that will incorporate information about Latino populations in the study of health inequities; build capacity in this area of research by developing an ethnically diverse workforce; and, work to ensure the center’s approach aligns with community needs.
Marino, who was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2022, chose to apply his expertise in biostatistics in family medicine rather than a traditional faculty pathway, developing a career working alongside community-based clinicians.
“Oregon is the only West Coast state without a center dedicated to Latino health research, and OHSU can fill this gap — not only to serve Oregon’s largest minority group, but also to place Oregon on the national stage of new and innovative approaches to end health inequities in Latinos,” Marino said.
Carmem Pfeifer, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Professor of restorative dentistry (biomaterials and biomechanics), OHSU School of Dentistry
Biomedical devices, from dental fillings to artificial hips to shunts in the brain, are all at risk for complications over time. Infections and gradual degradation may lead to potentially life-threatening conditions.
Pfeifer envisions using her award to extend her research in dental materials to other biomedical devices.
Pfeifer’s research has focused on developing durable, tough polymers combined with antimicrobial additives in dental filling material that’s stronger and lasts twice as long as standard materials used in the field now, and she has demonstrated some success in extending the lifespan of restorations.
Common examples of complications in biomedical implants include catheter-associated urinary tract infections, surgical site infection after orthopaedic surgery, infection of the ventricular shunt used for hydrocephalus treatment, and recurrent cavities underneath tooth fillings and gum disease. These may cause loss of the device and the need for costly treatment and replacement.
At least 7 million people in the U.S. alone have undergone hip replacement surgery, and many more have some sort of implantable device. In dentistry, cavities and gum disease remain a profound health concern, with millions of dental restorations annually in the United States. Yet the limited lifespan of current restorations often not only result in the loss of teeth, but also impose potentially life-threatening infections.
“Dentists have been bonding polymers to mineralized tissues for decades now, and some of the FDA-approved materials developed for oral applications have a huge translational potential to other areas of the body,” Pfeiffer said. “Historically, a lot of biomedical materials have been developed for use first in the oral cavity, with one important example being titanium implants. We believe dental adhesives and cements are other examples ripe with innovative and entrepreneurial opportunity.”
Pfeifer already has a substantial track record of innovation and accomplishment, and she plans to use the new award to extend her existing work while mentoring and training the next generation of scientists at OHSU.
Aaron Grossberg, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant professor of radiation medicine, OHSU School of Medicine; member of the Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, and the Brenden-Colson Center for Pancreatic Care; and, M.D./Ph.D. Program Committee, School of Medicine
Fighting cancer is physically demanding. Yet cancer-related weight loss prevents the body’s normal abilities to gain weight and preserve strength, no matter how much a person eats. This metabolic condition, known as cachexia, causes feebleness and fatigue, and often means that many patients are not fit enough to receive the best treatments for their cancer.
Grossberg will use his Faculty Excellence and Innovation Award to expand his laboratory’s ability to study how cancer affects the metabolism of fat and muscle, and identify new drug targets to prevent or reverse this process.
Grossberg, who treats patients with pancreatic cancer, has studied early forms of cachexia in mice and plans to apply lessons learned in the lab to identify patients in the earliest stages of cancer-related weight loss — when treatments are most likely to improve their condition.
“Our experiments tell us that in patients with cachexia, the body is no longer able to preserve muscle and fat when the patient is not eating, such as during sleep or when appetite is affected by the cancer or its treatment,” Grossberg said. “We believe that if we can identify cachexia early, before it causes severe weight loss and debility, we can prevent or reverse this process.”