December 12, 2013

LLUH researcher awarded $7.7 million grant from NIH

John H. Zhang, MD, PhD, professor of neurosurgery and physiology at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, recently learned that his application for a $7.7 million program project grant—or PPG—had been approved by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"This is only the second PPG in the history of Loma Linda University Health," he says. The first one was awarded to Lawrence D. Longo, MD, professor of physiology at the LLU School of Medicine, 19 years ago to start the Center for Perinatal Biology. 

"A PPG is a big grant to support a group of scientists at one university studying a singular theme," Dr. Zhang explains. "They are normally awarded to establish an NIH Center at a respected research institute. We are starting the Center for Brain Hemorrhage Research at LLUH."

The new center is good news for those who suffer from hemorrhagic stroke and traumatic brain injuries worldwide. As researchers uncover the causes, Dr. Zhang is hopeful they will also discover new treatments and prevention strategies.

"There are only 10 or 15 NIH PPG centers on stroke," he notes, "and we are the first and only one in the U.S. to study brain hemorrhage. These injuries, which result from strokes or traumatic brain damage, have a common feature of cerebral blood vessel rupture and release of blood into the brain tissue," he adds."The initial mechanical attack and subsequent blood chemistry reactions cause a cascade of ensuing changes that injure other parts of the brain."

While hemorrhagic strokes are less common than ischemic strokes caused by blood clots in cerebral vessels, the two types of hemorrhagic stroke in this study—subarachnoid and intracerebral hemorrhage—are a small but deadly minority of all stroke events. 

"Although they only represent between 15 and 20 percent of total strokes that occur in the U.S., they are responsible for more than 30 percent of stroke deaths," he shares. "Approximately 50 percent of patients who have one of these two forms of hemorrhage events die within the first month.

"One goal of this study," he concludes, "is to look for common features of these hemorrhagic brain injuries in hopes of discovering potential common therapies targeting on these shared features."  

In order to qualify for a PPG, an organization needs a nationally or internationally recognized principal investigator, or PI, and three projects led by other investigators with a history of federal funding. Dr. Zhang is internationally known for his brain hemorrhage research. The three individual projects, which NIH accepted, are studies of subarachnoid hemorrhage, intracerebral hemorrhage, and traumatic brain injury.

The first of the three projects is reminiscent of the $1.9 million NIH grant awarded Dr. Zhang in 2013 to investigate a potential treatment for subarachnoid hemorrhage. He will serve as PI for a portion of this grant, as he does for the earlier one.

Jiping Tang, MD, professor of basic sciences, will be the PI for the second project. Jerome Badaut, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics, and Andre Obenaus, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry and pediatrics, will serve as co-PIs for the third. 

The project has four distinct cores—administrative, neuroimaging, neurobehavioral, and neurobiological—each with its own director.

"I'm director of the administrative core," Dr. Zhang observes. "Andre Obenaus is in charge of the neuroimaging core, Richard Hartman is director of the neurobehavioral core, and William Pearce and John Buchholz are co-directors of the neurobiological core." Richard Hartman, PhD, is professor of psychology; William Pearce, PhD, is professor of physiology; and John Buchholz, PhD, is professor and vice chair of pharmacology.  

Dr. Zhang applied for the five-year grant in May 2012. The application was reviewed in October of that year, and the NIH released its first critique of the submission just before Thanksgiving. 

"We spent the holidays in the lab," Dr. Zhang discloses. "We re-submitted the application in early January 2013. It was re-reviewed in June. We received a notice of anticipatory funding last September."

Altogether, he has published 570 research papers as of August 2013, more than 300 of which have been written in his nine years at LLUH. He has also edited 14 books and served as editor-in-chief for two journals.

Since joining the LLUH faculty in 2004, Dr. Zhang has received $28 million in grants, later slashed to $23 million by budget cuts.