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TriCEM and CHDI award pilot project funding

Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Chesterfield Building

The Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine (TriCEM) and the Children’s Health and Discovery Initiative (CHDI) are pleased to announce the awardees of the 2019 TriCEM-CHDI Pilot Research Grants.

Applicants were asked to submit proposals focused on evolutionary medicine, broadly interpreted to involve research that uses evolutionary and ecological perspectives to understand and treat disease in humans, in order to study early life factors that influence childhood and lifelong health trajectories. Research teams were required to have at least one PI each from Duke School of Medicine and Duke University (including Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Nicholas School of the Environment, Sanford School of Public Policy, and the Pratt School of Engineering).

Two proposals were chosen to receive $40,000 over 12-months, with an additional $10,000 available to support the projects upon submission of an external grant proposal.

DNA Metabarcoding to Track Diet in Obese Children from Durham, NC
Investigators: Sarah Armstrong, MD; Lawrence David, PhD; Herman Pontzer, PhD

Project Summary

Tracking what children eat can be hard. The typical ways we record diet, which include surveys or diaries, require kids to be familiar with reading and writing, or parents with spare time to help fill out tedious forms. These drawbacks are often hardest to overcome for children from low-income and minority families, which are also disproportionately afflicted by diseases related to nutrition, like obesity. Here, we propose as new way to track diet in kids using tools originally developed by field ecologists tracking complex animal diets. Our approach is called DNA metabarcoding, and it detects residual DNA from food, which remains in human stool after digestion. In this project, we will first show that DNA metabarcoding works on humans by testing it on samples collected from volunteers eating foods under a controlled environment. Afterwards, we will couple DNA metabarcoding with measures of fecal energy content to samples collected from children belonging to an obesity clinic based here in Durham. The resulting data will allow us to test the hypothesis that humans have evolved to more efficiently extract nutrients from food when weight-loss activities like diet or exercise are pursed. Finding evidence supporting this hypothesis will help explain why common weight-loss strategies have not yielded successful public policies. Our findings could also lead to new weight-loss diets that account for the plasticity of digestive efficiency by integrating hard-to-digest foods, such as plant fiber.

Fitness Bottlenecks as a Therapeutic Vulnerability in Osteosarcoma
Investigators: Jason Somarelli, MD; Thomas Schultz, PhD

Project Summary

Osteosarcoma is the most common primary bone cancer in children. The major causes of death for nearly all kids with osteosarcoma are the metastatic spread of cells throughout the body that no longer respond to anti-cancer drugs. Metastasis and drug resistance are both processes that are grounded in evolutionary theory. During these evolutionary processes, selective pressures inside the body kill off most of the cancer cell population, leaving behind a few of the fittest survivors. The fittest cancer cells are the ones able to survive drug treatment and colonize distant organs. This process of selection from a diverse population creates a fitness bottleneck. We think these bottlenecks are the best times to kill the few remaining osteosarcoma cells and stop the disease. In this project, we are developing a system to track evolutionary bottleneck events during metastasis and therapy resistance and identify the genes that are turned on during each time a bottleneck occurs. We think the genes that are turned on during bottlenecks are the best candidates for new drugs to eradicate metastatic, drug-resistant osteosarcoma.