New NIH Awards Will Enhance Understanding of How Nerves Control Organ Function

NIH funds over $20 million in peripheral nervous system research.

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Awards from the National Institutes of Health’s Common Fund are supporting research on the peripheral nervous system, in hopes of finding new ways to treat conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and nausea. The new awards total more than $20 million in fiscal year 2016, and go to 27 multidisciplinary research teams through the Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions (SPARC)program. The SPARC program plans to support awards totaling approximately $238M through fiscal year 2021, pending available funds. This year’s awards encompass a wide range of projects intended to resolve existing knowledge gaps and technology limitations. In addition to treatment research, other projects focus on various organ systems, including heart, lung, stomach/intestine, colon, adipose tissue, spleen, bladder, and pancreas.

“The insights gained from these cutting-edge, collaborative projects will accelerate development of methods and devices to treat diseases.”

James M. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives

SPARC focuses on understanding peripheral nervesnerves that connect the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body — and how their electrical signals control internal organ function. Modulation of these control signals is a potentially powerful way to treat common conditions and diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and heart failure. Methods and medical devices that modulate peripheral nerve activity are becoming available, but more research to fully understand how these therapies act on a target organ’s cells is needed. Such understanding could help to explain and resolve why a particular therapy may be effective in one individual, but not in another, thereby making these therapies effective for more people.

“SPARC fosters synergistic, multidisciplinary collaborations to advance this rapidly developing research area with high potential to enable new and improved treatments,” said Dr. James M. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, which oversees the NIH Common Fund. “The insights gained from these cutting-edge, collaborative projects will accelerate development of methods and devices to treat diseases for which conventional therapies fall short.”

The 2016 awardees will work collectively as a consortium to address the goals and aims of SPARC. Biological projects will develop detailed anatomical and functional maps that illustrate how peripheral nerves control organ function, while technology development projects will create or improve tools to measure and manipulate nerve-organ interactions and isolate their functions. Additional projects include collaborations between private sector scientists and academic researchers, intended to expedite the development of new therapeutic strategies. Going forward, the SPARC program will leverage expertise from many different sources, not only academic laboratories, but also independent inventors, start-ups, small and large businesses, and international organizations. Data and tools developed in the SPARC program will be shared through a central online resource.

“The SPARC program invests in high-risk, goal-driven projects to discover the underlying mechanisms and pathways by which the peripheral nervous system controls internal organ function,” said SPARC Program Manager Gene Civillico, Ph.D. “This is achieved through a unique program management structure that allows SPARC to swiftly adopt new breakthroughs and emerging technologies, and nimbly incorporate ideas and expertise. These awards have the potential to catalyze next-generation neuromodulation therapies that could bring improved specificity for patients over both drug therapies and previous-generation devices.”