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7.24.2012

Mary Bartlett Bunge, Ph.D., Honored for Renewal of 39-Year-Old Grant

Mary Bartlett Bunge, Ph.D., the Christine E. Lynn Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience and a Professor of Cell Biology and Neurological Surgery at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and her colleagues recently learned that the Bunge-Wood-Monje Laboratory’s 39-year-old NIH grant to investigate Schwann cell biology and transplantation would be funded for another five years.

To commemorate the rare milestone, Bunge’s colleagues gathered in the Lois Pope LIFE Center on July 19 to celebrate the grant renewal and her longstanding contributions to The Miami Project’s research at the Miller School. Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., and Miami Project Scientific Director W. Dalton Dietrich, Ph.D., officially presented Bunge with the Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award medal she was awarded in April but unable to accept in person because of a previously scheduled trip. Drs. Goldschmidt and Dietrich also lauded Bunge’s contributions to the field of neuroscience and spinal cord injury as well as to the Miller School.

Over the years, the grant funded all the preparation of Schwann cells, which are awaiting approval for an FDA trial, and some of the other transplantation studies at The Miami Project. A type of “support” cell found mainly in the peripheral nervous system that insulates (myelinates) individual nerve fibers (axons), Schwann cells are necessary for sending appropriate electrical signals throughout the nervous system.

When the grant first started in 1971, it supported some of the seminal work Bunge, her late husband Richard Bunge, Ph.D., and Patrick Wood, Ph.D., research professor of neurosurgery at The Miami Project, pursued to develop purified cultures of Schwann cells, dorsal root ganglion neurons and fibroblasts and their various combinations in order to discern interactions between these cell types.

In their first discovery, they found a mitogenic signal was present on the axonal surface of the Schwann cells. Other studies showed the importance of the extracellular matrix for Schwann cell function. Now at the NIH, Naomi Kleitman, Ph.D., also made important contributions to Schwann cell biology while working with the Bunge-Wood laboratory. In recent years, Paula Monje, Ph.D., research assistant professor of neurological surgery at The Miami Project, has been an important participant in the grant and helped to acquire funding in the previous cycle. Wood also has been involved in continuing the grant throughout its duration.

Over the years, the grant received a remarkable three Javits Investigator Awards. Given to scientists for superior research and outstanding productivity, the Javits Award is for seven years of funding, rather than the more typical five years. They provide longer-term support to investigators with a history of scientific achievement and are based on the quality of the proposed work for the next funding cycle. Administered by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the grant also funded the purchase of two electron microscopes.

To inject new energy into the grant, Bunge invited John Bethea, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology and neurological surgery at The Miami Project, to be co-principal investigator. Miami Project faculty members Monje, Ian Hentall, Ph.D., research associate professor of neurological surgery, and Kevin Park, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurological surgery, also joined the grant team and added their unique areas of expertise.

Acknowledging that it takes a village to do the combination strategy Schwann cell transplantation work, Bunge said the grant renewal shows the village concept continues to work well at The Miami Project. She left the celebrants with the words of an old African proverb she strongly believes: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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