Frank Faraci, PhD, professor in Cardiovascular Medicine and of Neuroscience and Pharmacology, has been tapped to co-lead an international research network by the Leducq Foundation. Each year since 2003, the organization has named four or five new “Networks of Excellence” composed of researchers from around the world. The seven labs that comprise Faraci’s International Network of Excellence on Brain Endothelium: A Nexus for Cerebral Small Vessel Disease will have a five-year budget of $7.5 million. Faraci’s laboratory at the University of Iowa will receive $1.5 million.
Each funded Network targets an aspect of cardiovascular disease or stroke and is directed by two “Coordinators,” one researcher from North America and another from Europe, emphasizing the Leducq Foundation’s belief that scientific progress is more readily achieved through international collaboration. (The program has recently expanded to include investigators from any continent.) Faraci’s counterpart on this project is Dr. Martin Dichgans, professor and director of the Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research at the Munich Center for Neurosciences – Brain & Mind.
Previously, Faraci’s lab had been a member of a different Leducq-funded Network focused on neurovascular research in 2012. This is his first time serving in the Coordinator role. He explained in more detail about his past relationship with the Leducq Foundation, the research they have funded, and the mechanics of maintaining a research network.
Tell us about your lab’s focus.
My laboratory focuses on vascular biology, particularly within the cerebral circulation. Our studies involve several areas including endothelial cell biology and the impact of risk factors for large and small vessel disease (SVD), particularly hypertension and aging. A better understanding of such mechanisms may ultimately provide insight into approaches that could prevent or delay the progression of SVD that results in strokes and contributes to the vascular component of cognitive deficits, dementia, and other neurological diseases.
What will your “Network of Excellence” focus on?
Cerebral SVD is thought to be an important contributor to loss of brain health for a variety of neurological and psychiatric disorders. Brain endothelial cells serve as a focal point for normal brain function. The goals of this new Leducq Network are to: (1) identify mechanisms by which risk genes for SVD and stroke contribute to endothelial dysfunction and brain injury; (2) test whether genetic predisposition synergizes with hypertension to augment endothelial dysfunction and brain injury; and (3) determine whether heterogeneity in endothelial cells underlies differences in injury across brain regions (e.g., gray vs. white matter). These goals will be addressed using unique models and state-of-the-art methods. An additional priority is the training of future leaders in these areas. The Networks team is in a unique position to tackle these fundamental questions, advance our understanding of vascular biology and its impact on brain health, including potential targets for novel therapies.
What was your previous experience like working in a Leducq Network?
My laboratory had a very good experience during that funding. Excellent collaborations, along with expansion of methodologies and expertise resulted. In part, my previous Leducq funding formed the basis for subsequently obtaining two new R01s and a VA Merit Award.
Based on Foundation policy, a Leducq Network cannot be renewed. However, if there is a significant change in direction or a new arm of research emerges, the Foundation welcomes applications from previously funded investigators. In that spirit, Dr. Martin Dichgans and I took the initiative to identify and develop a new research topic, including recruitment of a team of investigators that would complement each other and make for a potentially competitive application. The Coordinators prepared the initial application draft, which then received input from each Network member.
Is this your first time leading a research network across multiple locations?
I had a similar leadership role when I served as the overall PI for a Program Project Grant from NINDS for 15 years. That Program ended when the Institute decided to eliminate support for the PPG funding mechanism. My experience as PI for that PPG provided a valuable resource in preparing this Network application to the Leducq Foundation.
How does leading a Network differ from membership?
While the Coordinators lead the Network, they are also investigators within the Network. As investigators, their laboratories will perform studies, train young investigators, share data, expertise, and models, while disseminating findings both within the Network and the greater scientific community.
How do you supervise and coordinate the work across so many different locations?
Individual Network members will have autonomy as they work toward our overall goals. Coordinators will help facilitate those efforts and enhance the overall research environment to the greatest extent possible. All major decisions will be made in collaboration, and after consultation as needed. The Coordinators serve as the interface between the Foundation and Network laboratories. They will oversee data sharing mechanisms, video conferencing, a Network seminar series, and face-to-face meetings. They will also help to facilitate exchange of early-career investigators for cross-laboratory training. Lastly, they will prepare and present Network progress reports to members of the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee and the Board of Directors.