UC Merced Connect: Research helped by drug maker

March 19, 2013 

Biology Professor Rudy Ortiz is furthering his innovative research into diabetes with support from a major pharmaceutical company.

Ortiz is developing new applications for medicines used to treat the effects of insulin resistance. That effort is being funded by Amylin Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., to the tune of $192,000 over two years.

Such funding agreements are common on other UC campuses and in comparable research institutions. This agreement at UC Merced constitutes an important show of faith from the pharmaceutical industry in the young campus's research capabilities.

"We will evaluate a drug that is traditionally used to address gluco-regulatory imbalance -- the hallmark of diabetes -- on a different aspect of diabetes," Ortiz said. "This drug has also been proposed as a potential alternative to alleviate the hypertension associated with diabetes by improving the kidneys' ability to regulate sodium."

That's the new application he'll be researching, along with undergraduate and graduate students in his lab, under the Amylin funding agreement. If the drug proves useful for this problem, it could help prevent kidney damage in diabetes patients.

David Cepoi of the UC Merced Office of Technology Transfer explained how funding agreements with private industry differ from government grants.

"The mission of federal grants is to sponsor fundamental, basic research, often for the advancement of human knowledge, although sometimes they also lead to societal advancements," Cepoi said.

"Funding agreements tend to be focused on projects related to a company's business interests. In many cases, the company wishes to fund a project designed to take an initial discovery already made by a university scientist a step or two closer to the market," he said.

Ortiz has spent his career in this field, so it makes sense for him to be working with Amylin. He learned about the company's funding opportunities through a colleague in the field who is employed there, going through Amylin's internal review process to get the funding.

But Ortiz said the agreement doesn't have any influence on the work he does.

"As a scientist, my goal is to produce the best hypothesis-driven research that addresses a significant research question," Ortiz said.

"For me, that would be helping to address a global health problem -- diabetes," he said. "The integrity of the work is maintained and conserved with the same degree of robustness, regardless of the funding source."

Graduate student at tech think tank

For alumnus Justin Hicks, graduate school was a trailblazing experience as he worked toward his doctorate in economics from 2007-12.

"At the time, Justin was our only graduate student in economics, so he had four faculty members who helped develop his research," Professor Alex Whalley said. "That attention helped him complete a very high-quality dissertation."

As a senior economic policy analyst for The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, Hicks supports investment in U.S. education, and research and development. He analyzes federal programs and proposed policy dealing with technology, and research and development.

"As a deep believer in strong investment in education, and R and D, my beliefs and research agenda mesh well with the organization," Hicks said.

The campus has more than 300 graduate students conducting innovative research in a range of fields. But the focus on teamwork with faculty remains, as does the interdisciplinary culture for which the campus is known.

The mix presents a world of opportunity to students ready to explore uncharted territory, Hicks said.

The university's graduate programs are designed to give students room to make original connections that go beyond traditional academic boundaries.

"You need an entrepreneurial vigor to make it happen for you," Hicks said. "You will be a trailblazer in many ways, and you must be prepared to be a self-starter."

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced.edu.

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