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Science in the service of humanity: Princeton joins Rutgers, NJIT to advance health-related innovations

Feb. 27, 2020 noon

Chloe Cavanaugh (right), a student in the Princeton-Rutgers M.D.-Ph.D. program, is one of several recipients of trainee grants through the NJ ACTS program, a collaboration between Rutgers, Princeton and the New Jersey Institute of Technology that aims to spur the translation of laboratory discoveries into innovations that benefit health. In addition to conducting research, Cavanaugh volunteers at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Eric B. Chandler Health Center in New Brunswick where she is pictured with Jacqueline Benford-Jones (left), an OB/GYN nurse.

Princeton faculty and student researchers make many discoveries that have the potential to address cancer, infectious disease, autism and other development disorders, and other medical, behavioral and health challenges.

Now, a collaboration with Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology is making it easier and faster for Princeton's medical and health-related research to reach patients and the community.

The collaboration, known as the New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS), began in 2019 and is funded by a $29 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to speed the translation of research into innovations that can lead to improvements in patient and public health.

With NIH support, NJ ACTS is organized into 14 core areas that provide research grants, training, mentoring, informatics, collaborations with community groups and industry, programs that address underserved populations, and improved access to clinical trials.

Two women in lab coats look at a test tube

Julie-Anne Rodier, a postdoctoral research associate in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (right) is studying the potential effects of gene-related factors on the risk of opioid addiction in the laboratory of Catherine Jensen Peña, assistant professor of neuroscience (left).

"This new relationship builds a bridge between Princeton researchers and the patient-centered activities of Rutgers University, its medical school and alliances with hospitals," said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and a professor of chemical and biological engineering, who serves on the Board of Directors of NJ ACTS. "Working together in collaboration, all three institutions are stronger and more capable of addressing today's health and medical challenges than each institution would be on its own."

Princeton brings to the partnership strengths in research on cancer, hepatitis and other diseases; understanding how social disparities affect health; new ways to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to health care challenges; new medical technologies; community interventions and other approaches.

Through the alliance with Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, the lead academic partner in the collaboration, Princeton researchers are more easily able to interact with clinical partners, including medical, nursing, dental and public health schools, hospitals, community health centers, industry, and policymakers. They can also more readily gain access to resources needed to advance their translational research, such as tissue samples, blood cells, core facilities and patients for studies.

"NJ ACTS allows us to collaborate with investigators at Rutgers who have a broader or deeper understanding of research related to patients, what problems need to be studied, and the best way to study them," said Daniel Notterman, who heads Princeton's role in the alliance and is a senior research scholar and a lecturer with the rank of professor in molecular biology, and a practicing physician. "NJ ACTS serves as a way to connect our faculty and student investigators to the questions they want to answer."

Lab samples in the palm of a nitrile gloved hand

Researchers in the lab of Peña, an NJ ACTS pilot-program awardee, track cell cycles in mice.

One of the significant benefits of the collaboration is the potential to bridge gaps between research communities, said Sam Wang, a professor of neuroscience and leader of the NJ ACTS pilot grants program at Princeton. "Modern biological research is increasingly complex, and opportunities are much greater if one can call upon a diversity of experimental and conceptual tools."

"The program can help overcome the barriers to translation of research that Princeton faculty and students sometimes face," said Noreen Goldman, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of Demography and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, and the head of two Princeton NJ ACTS sections, biostatistics and workforce development. "The grant has already fostered interactions and collaborations between Princeton and Rutgers in unanticipated ways."

The network of medical professionals and clinical experts benefits both research and teaching, said Daniel Cohen, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who, as a member of the NJ ACTS Academy of Mentors, provides training to Princeton graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. "I teach a class on medical devices and biomaterials," Cohen said, "and it is very helpful for students to hear firsthand from clinicians what they like and dislike about the medical devices they use on an everyday basis."

One research area that Princeton will focus on is the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the understanding of the brain, said Jonathan Cohen, the Robert Bendheim and Lynn Bendheim Thoman Professor in Neuroscience, professor of psychology and neuroscience, and co-director of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, and one of the Princeton faculty members who helped organize the collaboration. "With NJ ACTS collaborators, we'll be able to examine large data sets to look for patterns of brain and behavioral activity, and test their relevance to psychiatric disorders directly in clinical studies."

Through NJ ACTS, Princeton awards pilot research grants as well as training grants for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers at Princeton. To date, four faculty members have received pilot grants, awarded on a competitive basis, across a range of biomedical and health-related topics:

  • Zemer Gitai, the Edwin Grant Conklin Professor of Biology, and professor of molecular biology, is exploring potential drug leads for treatment of bacterial infections
  • Esteban Engel, director of the Viral Neuroengineering Facility, Princeton Neuroscience Institute, is examining how neural activity may regulate the pancreatic cells that play a role in diabetes
  • Catherine Jensen Peña, assistant professor of neuroscience, is investigating whether DNA modifications in brain reward circuits increase the risk of opioid addiction following treatment for chronic pain
  • Kathryn Edin, the William Church Osborn Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School, is studying health aspects related to housing policy

Two translational science training fellowships have been awarded on a competitive basis to two early-career researchers:

Seven Princeton faculty members are engaged in core leadership roles providing infrastructure, tools, services and expertise to the NJ ACTS community of clinical and translational researchers, trainees and staff.

Princeton has a long history of collaboration with Rutgers, including the joint M.D./Ph.D. program in which students can complete the laboratory portion of the degree at Princeton and earn their medical degree at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. NJ ACTS is one of the 58 NIH-funded clinical and translational hubs nationwide.

"This program is another step in reducing the barriers between institutions so that patients can access care sooner," Notterman said. "This is another way for Princeton faculty and Princeton students to work in the nation's service."

The collaboration is supported by the National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program grants UL1TR003017, KL2TR003018 (career development) and TL1TR003019 (training).

Learn more about funding opportunities, training and resources available through NJ ACTS. To apply for a grant through the NJ ACTS pilot program, contact Bianca Freda, Class of 1998, or access the application on the NJ ACTS website.