On Idaho campuses, vital research could spur biomedical, biomechanical breakthroughs

Researchers celebrate a $1.5 million grant to help underrepresented CWI students pursue biomedical sciences degrees at Boise State. From left are Troy Rohn, Donna Llewellyn, Steve Lysne, Catherine Bates and Cheryl Jorcyk.
Researchers celebrate a $1.5 million grant to help underrepresented CWI students pursue biomedical sciences degrees at Boise State. From left are Troy Rohn, Donna Llewellyn, Steve Lysne, Catherine Bates and Cheryl Jorcyk. College of Western Idaho

The Treasure Valley is home to some of best medical resources in the state – U.S. News and World Reports recently named St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center as Idaho’s best hospital, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center Boise was named one of the nation’s 100 Great Hospitals in America by Becker’s Hospital Review, and the Boise VA Medical Center is one of the highest-ranking veterans hospitals in the country, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But while physicians and medical teams conduct the important work of diagnosing diseases and treating patients, it’s critical to remember that many of the treatment methods they utilize have been developed at universities across Idaho – in fact, the state has a long, rich history in biomedical and biomechanical education and research.

For example, Boise State assistant research professor Richard Beard is an expert on inflammation at the molecular level. It’s common knowledge that inflammation makes small blood vessels leak, and as long as that inflammation is localized and controlled, it benefits the human body – swelling increases fluid exchange and allows white blood cells to disperse and repair tissue, which promotes healing. But more often than not, our immune systems fail in disease conditions and inflammation spreads beyond its intended area, which can lead to blood infections, tissue death and organ failure.

For the past decade, Beard has been developing and testing genetic methods and other treatments to stop inflammation or restrict it to targeted areas. His research is so critical that it is completely funded through the American Heart Association.

Important work like this is being done all over the state. University of Idaho researchers are developing computer simulations to predict which disease-causing pathogens will be resistant to drug therapy.

Biomechanical research, or the study of human musculoskeletal systems to better understand injury and prevention, might be an obvious point of interest for competitive athletes. But musculoskeletal disorders most often occur in the workplace, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The University of Idaho’s Integrated Sports Medicine Movement Analysis Laboratory uses a collaborative approach to researching the mechanics of injury, preventative strategies and effective treatments.

At Idaho State University’s Biomedical Research Lab, researchers are developing mathematical models for skeletal muscle fatigue, creating augmented reality devices to help rehabilitate stroke victims, and developing hardware and software that would create sensory feedback for individuals with prosthetic hands.

While many of these projects involve graduate and undergraduate research, universities also are reaching beyond their labs to ensure that incoming students have competitive skills. For example, Boise State has partnered with the College of Western Idaho community college and been awarded a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to bolster the number of underrepresented community college students who are transferring to Boise State to pursue research careers in the biomedical sciences.

Through the grant, underrepresented students – including first-generation college students, rural Americans, Pell-eligible students, veterans and individuals with disabilities, and minority students – will receive personalized attention to prepare them to successfully transfer to Boise State, pursue degrees in the biomedical sciences and launch their research careers. This includes individual advising and mentoring; funded research positions in Boise State labs for selected students; and funding for new CWI classes in ethics, cell biology and genetics, as well as a new cell/molecular biology lab component.

Biomedical and biomechanical researchers do not interface with patients the way physicians do – their research is often limited to computer models or petri dishes. But this does not prevent them from impacting patient health in very substantial ways.

For example, three Boise State researchers are collaborating with a lead coronary artery disease physician and researcher in Texas to explore alternative treatments for coronary artery disease, or heart disease. Their hypothesis is that high cholesterol might not be the cause of many peoples’ heart disease – that many cases could be caused by fortilin, a protein that protects fat cells from naturally dying off, allows fat cells to grow and grow, until they rupture, causing a heart attack. The National Institutes the Health has awarded the group a $1 million grant to develop and test viable alternative treatments based on that hypothesis. Their four-year goal is to create a clinical-grade compound that attacks fortilin, and if they’re successful, they could essentially help cure heart disease.

So while our researchers work on college campuses, let’s not forget that the successful research they execute is dedicated to the patients they never meet – by both improving and extending people’s lives.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. He writes monthly.