UNE joins Maine INBRE network, increases biomedical research capacity

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The University of New England has been selected to join the Maine IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), a collaborative network of state educational and research institutions that strives to strengthen Maine’s capacity to conduct cutting-edge biomedical research.

UNE will become the 14th member of the statewide research network on May 1. 

Led by the MDI Biological Laboratory, the Maine INBRE is sponsored and funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

The network was formed as part of the NIGMS’ Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which builds research capacity in states that historically have had low levels of NIH funding. Maine is one of two dozen states eligible for the IDeA program. 

Since its inception in 2001, the Maine INBRE program has brought in $86 million in direct federal research funding and leveraged $84 million in additional federal grants. Over 2,400 students have received hands-on biomedical research training through the program.

“We are excited to have UNE joining the Maine INBRE as a formal research partner,” said James Coffman, Ph.D., principal investigator of the Maine INBRE and associate professor at the MDI Biological Laboratory. “For several years now, UNE has contributed informally to advancing the goals of the Maine INBRE by providing mentored research experiences for undergraduate research fellows from different INBRE partner institutions as well as through inter-institutional faculty research collaborations. It made sense to strengthen and build on that relationship by formally adding UNE to the network.”

In May, the MDI Biological Laboratory was awarded nearly $18 million from the NIGMS to renew the Maine INBRE grant for another five years.

“We are really excited about joining the Maine INBRE network,” said Karen Houseknecht, Ph.D., UNE associate provost for Research and Scholarship. “This increases our opportunities to collaborate with our partners in the state on undergraduate education and research and graduate research. It gives us greater access not only to federal funding but also to research infrastructure across the state.”

The University’s addition to the INBRE network builds upon the strong work conducted by UNE’s Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) for the Study of Pain and Sensory Function, itself an NIGMS IDeA-funded program. COBRE programs support thematic, multidisciplinary research centers that strengthen institutional biomedical research capacity.

The mission of UNE’s COBRE, headed by Ian D. Meng, Ph.D., is to significantly contribute to the scientific understanding of the neurobiology of chronic pain, facilitating the discovery and development of novel therapies. The center’s primary focus is to provide support to junior scientists as they establish individual independent research programs.

UNE’s work through the COBRE program significantly influenced the NIH’s decision to accept UNE into to the INBRE network, Houseknecht said. 

“Our addition to the network is a comment on the excellent work that we do here, the core facilities that have been built through our COBRE, and our collaborative spirit,” she said.

Coffman said that UNE’s classification as a “High Research Activity” (or “R2”) institution by Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (CCIHE) will aid in fostering collaborative research opportunities across southern Maine, as well as statewide.

“The whole idea is that research institutions are providing resources, expertise, and research infrastructure for the benefit of partners across the whole statewide network, particularly undergraduate institutions. The undergraduate partner institutions in southern Maine have that benefit of having an R2 institution nearby,” he said.

The CCIHE reclassified UNE to the “Doctoral Universities: High Research Activity” category in its 2018 list. UNE is the only institution in all of New England to rise from the “Master’s Colleges and Universities: Larger Programs” category. 

Dedication to “focused research and scholarship” is one of six priorities outlined by UNE President James D. Herbert in his strategic plan for the University. As such, students are engaged in research that is intellectually stimulating, regionally responsive, and globally relevant at all stages of their education. 

In addition to the COBRE’s focused research on the neurobiology of pain, UNE researchers continue to pursue federally funded studies in the areas of pharmacology, novel therapeutic discovery, inflammation, and infectious disease. Additionally, the UNE Centers of Excellence in Public Health and Aging and Health focus on the health care needs of vulnerable populations in Maine. 

Houseknecht said UNE’s addition to the Maine INBRE network will further the University’s commitment to research that confronts the pressing issues of society.

“Biomedical research, ranging from basic to applied to translational, has never been more important as we face the challenges of emerging infectious diseases, aging populations, and the impact those will have on our most vulnerable populations and communities,” she said. “UNE researchers are dedicated to research that impacts human health and wellbeing and on training our students for careers in research and health care. Joining the Maine INBRE is an exciting new way to help us achieve these goals.”

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