Seed Money Launches Successful Arthritis Research Program

Wake Forest School of Medicine website—December 2012


Research funding from the National Institutes of Health and from foundations is extremely competitive. Only about one in 10 grant applications advances beyond the initial peer review process to be considered for funding.

“To be competitive, you need preliminary data supporting your research idea,” said Richard Loeser, MD, Kimbrell Professor of Internal Medicine and head of the Section on Molecular Medicine. “Generating that data requires equipment, researchers, and a year or more of work. The endowment the Kimbrells provided made a huge difference in our ability to get the data we needed to write a competitive proposal.”

Getting Started

Wake Forest School of Medicine (WFSM) started the Dorothy Rhyne Kimbrell and Willard Duke Kimbrell Endowed Professorship for Arthritis and Rheumatology and the Dorothy Rhyne and Willard Duke Kimbrell Proteomics Research Lab with their gift of $1.5 million about a decade ago. To date the arthritis research, plus additional research supported by the proteomics lab, has garnered $17.7 million in grants, prompting an additional $2 million Kimbrell gift last year.

Loeser Jr Richard F “I think he was really impressed with the return on investment that we had made and the work   that we are doing,” Loeser said.

WFSM recruited Loeser to lead the program in 2005. Loeser completed a residency and fellowship at the Medical Center in the 1980s and served on the faculty for a decade before joining a large arthritis research team at Chicago’s Rush Medical Center in 1999.

Outfitting the Lab

About a third of the original gift outfitted the proteomics laboratory, where researchers study proteins using a high-tech instrument that analyzes thousands of peptides and identifies them by their molecular charge and mass.

“It allows us to find a needle in a haystack,” Loeser explained. “A sample includes thousands of proteins, and we’re trying to find the one that is going to be the most relevant to our research.”

Garnering Grant Support

Two thirds of the original gift started the endowment that supports ongoing faculty work. Subsequent grants have provided $1.3 million to train students, fellows and junior faculty pursuing arthritis research careers, $10.5 million for research projects, and $5.9 million for additional projects supported by the proteomics laboratory.

“All of this grew from that original seed money,” Loeser said. “We’re grateful for the Kimbrells’ support. Their gift probably accelerated our program by about five or six years.”

Advancing Knowledge

Cartilage lacks the ability to repair itself, so early identification of patients at risk for developing arthritis and new therapies are the best way to slow its progression.

“We’re much closer to understanding how cartilage breaks down in people who develop arthritis,” Loeser said. “Cartilage is not simply a part that wears out. Arthritis is an active biological process driven by disruptions in cellular signaling. Switches turn on, producing enzymes that break down cartilage. Understanding this process gives us new targets for therapy.”

Finding a new drug to slow or halt arthritis and improve patient care is the ultimate return on investment that Loeser and his team are seeking.

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Eric F. Frazier

Eric F. Frazier is an independent writer, editor, book reviewer and co-author of GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones.