UNE receives $10.8 million to establish new Center for Cell Signaling Research

Eva Balog Laboratory
Associate Professor Eva Balog, Ph.D. (in blue), is one of the four initial faculty project leaders at the new Center for Cell Signaling Research.

The University of New England has received a five-year, $10.8 million award from the National Institutes of Health to support an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) to be named the UNE Center for Cell Signaling Research (CCSR). The COBRE program supports the development of innovative biomedical research centers through awards for three sequential five-year phases.

Research at the CCSR will heavily focus on studying defects in how cells signal, or communicate. Cell signaling defects are fundamental to the development of human diseases, including dementia, diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease. The CCSR will create a self-sustaining research community at UNE in the cell signaling field and is an important component of the University’s mission to expand biomedical research infrastructure and capabilities

“I am so proud of what biomedical researchers at UNE have accomplished over the last decade, and this award is more evidence of our regional leadership in investigating real-world health issues that are impacting Mainers and Americans every day,” said UNE President James Herbert.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who live in rural settings have a higher chance of developing chronic health issues than those living in urban areas. With Maine being one of the most rural states in the country, CCSR Program Director Derek Molliver, Ph.D., said examining these issues at a cellular level will eventually help Mainers live more comfortably.

“We're expanding into really hot areas of research that are targeting significant clinical challenges for the 21st century, research into chronic metabolic diseases that impact Mainers across their lifespan,” Molliver said. “There is a tremendous amount of excitement about how we can help people to live healthier and have a high quality of life. Those are the dramatic new questions for society that this center will be looking into.”

The COBRE funding supports four initial research projects led by faculty members Eva Balog, Ph.D., Kathleen Becker, Ph.D., Harry Filippakis, Ph.D., and Luis Queme Cobar, M.D., Ph.D. The funding will also assist the University in creating nearly 5,000 square feet of new research laboratory space by renovating a section of the Alfond Center for Health Sciences on UNE’s Biddeford Campus.

The award helps solidify UNE’s College of Osteopathic Medicine (COM) as one of the most highly-funded osteopathic medical schools for research in the United States. The CCSR builds on the success of UNE’s other COBRE-funded program, the Center for Pain Research, established in 2012. UNE is the only college or university in Maine to have two NIH-funded COBRE centers and is also first among Maine colleges and universities for NIH funding, with $4 million in new NIH funding awarded in 2022.

“The University is making strategic investments in renovating research laboratories on the Biddeford and Portland campuses, including the Portland Laboratory for Biotechnology and Health Sciences, with the goal of providing state-of-the-art research facilities to support COM’s vital research mission as well as unifying biomedical and biotechnology research infrastructure across UNE’s two Maine campuses,” said University Provost Gwendolyn Mahon.

The CCSR is also strategically aligned with national, regional, and statewide investments in biotechnology and biomanufacturing. The Bioscience Association of Maine reported in 2022 that the life sciences industry added $2.2 billion to Maine’s gross domestic product (GDP) over the previous five years, or 4.2% of the state’s total exports.

“UNE’s COBRE centers provide crucial research infrastructure to support biomedical research innovation as well as workforce development and training opportunities for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students interested in careers in biotechnology,” said Karen Houseknecht, Ph.D., associate provost for Research and Scholarship. “This positions the University to make important contributions to Maine’s rapidly growing biotech industry.”

Additional coverage: