MDI Biological Laboratory

MDI Bio Lab Scientist Receives $2 Million NIH Grant

  • January 19, 2024

Award brings total new research funding in 2023 to more than $8 million

Capping a year that saw federal and private research awards totaling $8.5 million to the MDI Biological Laboratory, researcher Dustin Updike, Ph.D., learned in December that his group will receive a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The “Maximizing Investigators Research Award” (MIRA) will support the next phase of Updike’s groundbreaking work on proteins that can program and reprogram cells to sustain development, fertility and the regenerative capacities needed for healing, but which can also play a role in potent diseases such as melanoma and breast cancer.

“The MIRA award is designed to provide scientists more flexibility than most other government research grants,” says MDI Bio Lab President Hermann Haller, M.D. “This is a testament to Dustin’s creative approach to comparative biology, and to MDI Bio Lab’s commitment to excellence and innovation.”

Awarded by the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), the funds will be supplemented by support from the Laboratory’s donors and foundations to keep the Updike research group busy for the next five years, while allowing the hire of a new team member.

Updike and his colleagues are exploring mysterious assemblies of proteins called “germ granules” that are found inside the reproductive cells that pass genetic information from parent to offspring. The cells that make up the germline, as it’s called, carry the same DNA as other cells in our bodies, yet only the germline can perpetuate the genetic code.

Updike is generating new insights on the role these protein assemblies play in the germline’s activities. His work utilizes the tiny C. elegans roundworm, a valuable model for human physiology, because it depends on many of the same proteins that we do, while its transparency makes it ideal for observing subcellular mechanics in real time, using the Laboratory’s state-of-the-art microscopes.

“Understanding the function of individual germ-granule proteins, the purpose and conditions of their assembly, and their capacity for cellular reprogramming are critical steps in the development of applications that improve reproductive health, regeneration, and cancer therapeutics,” Updike says.

Other NIGMS research grants won by MDI Bio Lab investigators in 2023 include:

  • A $1.6 million share of a new Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) grant for the laboratory of Romain Madelaine, Ph.D., to study biological processes that underly muscle decline, regeneration and rejuvenation. The funds are part of a larger COBRE award that includes four research group at the University of Maine.
  • A $1.3 million Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) for Jane Disney, Ph.D., to continue work engaging K-12 students in environmental health science curricula and research for the growing All About Arsenic Disney also received funding through the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, of $30,000 to test for and analyze the presence of PFAS “forever chemicals” near schools in Maine.
  • A $900,000 supplement to the Laboratory’s ongoing COBRE grant that funds work in the Lab’s Kathryn W. Davis Center for Regenerative Biology and Aging, led by the center’s Director, Iain Drummond, Ph.D.

Other major grants included:

  • A $600,000 federal appropriation secured by Maine’s Congressional delegation to finance infrastructure investments for the Laboratory’s entrepreneurial subsidiary, MDI Bioscience.
  • A $450,000 award from the Scott R. MacKenzie Foundation for Haller’s research on a recently identified molecule that could protect the smallest blood vessels that serve the kidneys and the heart from diseases such as diabetes. Haller’s group received a similar MacKenzie Foundation award in 2022.

“All of this work springs from the synergistic, collaborative culture that drives our small institute’s mission to improve how we age, and how we heal,” Haller says. “I am confident that 2024 will see more expansion of our scientific capacity, and continued investments to support the growing number of graduates and trainees on campus.”