Updated March 29 at 12:28am

Grant program boosting biomedical research


For biomedical researcher Niall G. Howlett, getting $500,000 in startup funding to set up a laboratory seven years ago was critical to establishing roots to pursue research here in Rhode Island.

And like other researchers at universities around the state, Howlett, a University of Rhode Island associate professor of cell and molecular biology, found that getting that initial National Institutes of Health funding through the Institutional Development Award Network of Biomedical Research Excellence in Rhode Island, or INBRE, in 2007 led to getting other grants and working with graduate students who have the potential to become part of the state’s biomedical workforce.

“It’s been fantastic,” Howlett said recently. “I can’t stress how important it has been to Rhode Island. It attracts people to come here. It allows the hiring of people … and it does keep you here. It provides the startup money and it allows you to ‘find your feet.’ ”

Howlett’s area of expertise, Franconi anemia, is a rare disease caused by a defective gene that results in bone-marrow failure in young people. The gene also makes those who carry it more susceptible to cancer in their 20s. Howlett is working to identify a new Franconi anemia gene that could be important for cancer prevention.

“What I do always, if I’m not teaching, [is] I’m writing grant applications,” he said.

Three seed grants totaling more than $260,000 from other research funds and foundations led to a $400,000 NIH grant in 2008-09, he said. And the U.S. Department of Defense’s bone-marrow failure research program recently awarded Howlett more than $500,000 to continue his research, he said.

Nationally, INBRE is a competitive grant program intended to foster biomedical and behavioral research and enhance the competitiveness of those researchers at institutions in 23 states (and Puerto Rico) in which the success rate for applications to NIH has historically been low.

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