MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – With the help of a major federal grant, West Virginia University is bolstering its faculty and scientific research on stroke to mitigate the devastating effects of the disease across the state and the nation.

The grant of $10.7 million over the next five years, including more than $2.1 million this year, will have a transformational effect on basic and translational stroke research at WVU. The funding will enhance mentoring and development of five junior investigators and their research programs as well as support core resources.

The American Heart Association ranks stroke as the fourth highest killer in the nation and one of the leading causes of long-term disability. The burden of stroke is particularly heavy in West Virginia, with the state having one of the highest incidence rates in the country.

“Risk factors of stroke and stroke itself affect a lot of people – with particular prevalence in Appalachian populations. These populations are seeing stroke events occur at younger ages and with longer-lasting effects,” Jim Simpkins, Ph.D., director of the WVU Center for Basic and Translational Stroke Research (CBTSR) and professor in the WVU School of Medicine Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, said.

“We are being presented with an opportunity to make a significant impact on the quality of life for stroke patients. The discoveries that our faculty make about when and how these events happen can minimize poor outcomes from stroke and help patients recover quickly so they can return to their families and live normal lives.”

COBRE, which stands for Centers for Biomedical Research Excellence, is a program of the National Institute for General Medical Sciences focused on enhancing research and mentoring of young faculty members. This is the third COBRE grant awarded at WVU.

“It’s no secret that stroke is a major problem in West Virginia,” Glen H. Dillon, Ph.D., vice president for Health Sciences Research and Graduate Education, said. “Receipt of this competitively earned NIH grant will ensure WVU continues to be a leader in conducting cutting-edge research focused on stroke.”

Dr. Simpkins explained that the West Virginia Stroke COBRE will support a key part of CBTSR. WVU is unique because it has the capability to address bench (laboratory research), bedside (clinical research), and community (outreach) issues in stroke.

“We must engage a lot of people in order to solve West Virginia’s stroke issue,” Simpkins said. “Stroke prediction, cause, prevention, acute treatment, and rehabilitation are all linked, and a national center for excellence in stroke research will provide the most advanced research into all of these areas.”

The grant will support a formal junior investigator mentoring program, which Simpkins said is critical to faculty development and research independence.

“Dr. Simpkins is especially well positioned to lead this effort,” Dr. Dillon said. “He is internationally recognized for his work in stroke, and he has mentored many junior faculty to successful careers. This is an innovative team of investigators whose work could have great impact.”

Paul Chantler, Ph.D., assistant professor in the WVU Department of Exercise Physiology, will study how the cardiovascular system responds to stroke and the impact of cardiovascular function on stroke outcome.

Taura Barr, R.N., Ph.D., assistant professor in the WVU School of Nursing, will study what genes can tell us about stroke and immune suppression in individuals through genomic biosignatures.

Sergiy Yakovenko, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise physiology, will study corticospinal control of sensorimotor synergies – how ensembles of neurons that regulate movement respond in health and disease.

Valeriya Gritsenko, Ph.D., assistant professor in the WVU Department of Physical Therapy, will study corticospinal control of limb dynamics – how spinal pathways regulate movement – in health and after stroke.

Stephanie Frisbee, Ph.D., assistant professor in the WVU School of Public Health, will study the effects of anti-wetting agents, such as perfluoroalkyl chemicals, on stroke incidence, mortality, and morbidity.

The grant will also help build capacity at WVU by funding underlying administrative and research cores that can benefit any relevant research at the University.

The Administrative Core, led by Simpkins, will manage the various aspects of the West Virginia Stroke COBRE, including administration of a well-developed and intensive junior faculty mentoring program, a rigorous summative and formative evaluation program, and advisory committees.

The Experimental Stroke Core, led by Sophie Ren, M.D., research associate in physiology and pharmacology, will provide resources, expertise, and experimental stroke procedures to junior investigators, as well as to the WVU neuroscience and cardiovascular research community.

The Biostatistics Core, led by Matthew Gurka, Ph.D., associate professor in the WVU Department of Biostatistics, will provide critical biostatistical information support during the design and conduct of the junior investigator-initiated projects.

Overall, the West Virginia Stroke COBRE will provide the expertise and resources that can change the future of stroke research for the benefit of those suffering or recovering from debilitating results of the neurological disease.

“We are appreciative that the state of West Virginia, through its Eminent Scholars Recruitment and Enhancement Program, had the vision to support an investment in stroke research,” Arthur J. Ross, III, M.D., M.B.A., dean of the School of Medicine, said. “Ultimately, we are thrilled that this team has been able to convert that initial investment into a major federal award.”

This research was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P20GM109098.

Photo captions: Top photo – WVU stroke researcher Sergiy Yakovenko, Ph.D., together with his team of neuroengineers and exercise physiologists are developing new methods to test and improve the motor skills of people recovering from stroke. Healthy and post-stroke volunteers walking on a specialized treadmill with sensors are providing the scientists with data on movement dynamics and behavior for the development of robotic exoskeletons and neural stimulators. This data can help clinicians develop rehabilitation strategies that are tailored to each patient’s individual needs. Pictured with him are Ruaridh Gollifer (far left), a student from the University of Glasgow, who is doing a professional placement internship in Dr. Yakovenko’s Neural Engineering Lab, and Kyla Galbreath, a student in the Master of Science in Exercise Physiology Program.

Bottom photo – Front row, left to right: Jim Simpkins, Ph.D., director of the WVU Center for Basic and Translational Stroke Research and professor in the WVU Department of Physiology and Pharmacology: Sophie Ren, M.D., research associate in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology; Taura Barr, R.N., Ph.D., assistant professor in the WVU School of Nursing; Valeriya Gritsenko, Ph.D., assistant professor in the WVU Department of Physical Therapy; and Elizabeth Engler-Chiurazzi, Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology. Back row, left to right: Sergiy Yakovenko, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Physiology; Stephanie Frisbee, Ph.D., assistant professor in the WVU School of Public Health; and Paul Chantler, Ph.D., assistant professor in the WVU Department of Exercise Physiology.

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