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WRITER: MEGHAN NEARY
CONTACT: DAVE PEDERSEN
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Release: Sept. 20, 2000

March of Dimes marks $760,500 commitment to UI birth defects research

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The March of Dimes Iowa State Chapter recently marked its commitment of $760,500 in grant support to seven University of Iowa researchers who study processes and conditions that can lead to birth defects.

Christie Vilsack, honorary chair of the March of Dimes Iowa State Chapter, and Joyce Kohl, executive director of the March of Dimes Iowa State Chapter, met with Robert Kelch, M.D., dean of the UI College of Medicine, during a ceremony at the college on Sept. 6. Other March of Dimes employees and several of the UI researchers receiving support also attended the ceremony.

Individual grants are helping further the work of the following UI researchers:

-- Pamela K. Geyer, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry ($56,778), investigates molecular processes involved in organizing chromosomes into regions of independent gene expression. Her focus is on a new class of regulatory elements called insulators. Geyer's studies provide insights into basic questions of how chromosomal rearrangements alter gene expression and will help improve gene transfer processes. These processes would prevent genes re-introduced into chromosomes in a new environment from changing their normal pattern of expression.

-- Rebecca S. Hartley, Ph.D., assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology ($100,000), studies the processes underlying cell divisions regulated by the mother and by the embryo, and what happens during the switch from maternal to embryonic control of these processes. Her goal is to increase understanding of birth defects that can result from problems during this switch.

Jeffery L. Meier, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine ($49,119), focuses on cytomegalovirus (CMV), the most common infection acquired before birth and an important cause of brain damage during the perinatal period, three months before to one month after birth. His goal is to develop new ways to prevent and treat congenital CMV infections.

-- Diane C. Slusarski, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences ($100,000), studies how exchange of information between cells during embryonic development is translated into changes in function through the activation of signaling pathways within the cells. Her data could lead to the development of new treatments to prevent birth defects caused by deviations from the normal signaling pathways.

-- Lawrence P. Karniski, M.D., professor of internal medicine ($77,263), investigates how mutations that alter a human protein called pendrin result in Pendred syndrome, a leading cause of hereditary deafness. His research provides a knowledge base from which to develop prevention and treatment for this disease in the future. Karniski also is a practitioner and researcher at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City.

-- Jeanne M. Snyder, Ph.D., professor of anatomy and cell biology, ($180,000), aims to characterize the role of vitamin A in regulating fetal lung development. Specifically, she studies the regulation of surfactant, a wetting substance that reduces surface tension and keeps air sacs in the lungs from collapsing after each breath. An absence of surfactant causes severe respiratory distress in premature babies. Snyder works towards understanding how Vitamin A metabolites can increase surfactant in the lungs of newborns. Her findings may help lead to the development of new treatments for premature lung disease.

-- Christie P. Thomas, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine ($197,340), studies the regulation of sodium channels in the lining of the human lung. Optimal function of these sodium channels appears to be required for efficient gas exchange in the newborn. Immaturity of the channels may contribute to respiratory distress in premature babies. Thomas' research could lead to the design of new therapies for premature newborns with respiratory distress syndrome. Thomas also is a practitioner at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City.

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI College of Medicine and the UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide.