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In 2007, the National Center for Research Resources, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), awarded Rhode Island Hospital an $11.1 million grant to study bone development, cartilage and joint health, and the prevention and treatment of skeletal joint diseases. The grant, one of the largest in the hospital's history, came at a time of intense competition for federal funding for biomedical research.
The five-year grant funded the creation of the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) for Skeletal Health and Repair, which works to improve preventive strategies or treatments for joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis, which affect an estimated 46 million Americans. According to the center director and principal investigator Qian Chen, PhD, director of cell and molecular biology and head of orthopedic biology at Rhode Island Hospital, the grant enables the COBRE to:
expand and renovate laboratory space and establish research cores, including a bioengineering core and an imaging and molecular biology core,
mentor the next generation of researchers, the majority of whom are clinician/scientists who are treating patients every day, and
conduct translational research ranging from preventing childhood limb deformities to treating adult bone cancer and from treating arthritis induced by trauma or sports injury to rebuilding a healthy joint using tissue engineering.
Chen leads a multidisciplinary team that includes researchers from the departments of orthopedics, emergency medicine, pediatrics, medicine and bioengineering at Rhode Island Hospital and The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
The investigators and mentors include both clinician/scientists and basic research scientists. Each mentor, a principal investigator of multiple federal grants, supervises a junior investigator's research project. The establishment of this research infrastructure-in which clinicians work side by side with basic research scientists, junior investigators with senior investigators, and biologists with bioengineers-is essential to developing translational strategies for prevention and treatment of skeletal joint diseases.Projects include research on the way in which long bones are built up during skeletal development, how joint cartilage degenerates in adult joint diseases, and how to repair and rebuild healthy cartilage. Researchers also work to identify genes that control the process of building new cartilage, to develop agents that can inhibit the enzyme that breaks down cartilage, and to grow natural cartilage in the laboratory to replace lost cartilage.
"The aging of the baby boom generation and soaring obesity rates mean we can expect to see a sharp increase in the number of patients with osteoarthritis and other joint diseases," says Chen. "That's why it's critical that we not only expand our search for new and better treatments for joint diseases, but that we also recruit and mentor the next generation of orthopedic researchers, which our COBRE award allows us to do.