MUSC emerges as a national leader in digestive and liver disease research

June 05, 2020
Stellate Cell Focal Adhesions and Cytoskeleton. Image courtesy of Dr. Don Rockey, rights reserved.
Stellate cell focal adhesions and cytoskeleton. Image courtesy of Nour Hijazi, all rights reserved.

 This spring marked a seismic shift for digestive and liver disease research at MUSC with the award of more than $16.5 million in National Institutes of Health funding to open two new tightly integrated centers.  

 MUSC became the only institution in the country to house both a Digestive Disease Research Core Center (DDRCC), which supports the research of established scholars, and a Center for Biomedical Research Excellence in Digestive and Liver Disease (CDLD), which mentors early-career investigators to become independent scholars. 

“The institutions that are home to a DDRCC represent the true leaders in academic gastroenterology and hepatology. Speaking for myself and Steve, we’re very proud of this achievement.”

-- Dr. Don Rockey,
Director of the MUSC DDRCC

MUSC is now one of only 17 DDRCCs in the nation. Department of Medicine investigator Don C. Rockey, M.D., a gastroenterologist, serves as the MUSC DDRCC’s director. Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology chair Stephen A. Duncan, D.Phil., a basic scientist specializing in liver disease research, serves as associate director. “The institutions that are home to a DDRCC represent the true leaders in academic gastroenterology and hepatology,” said Rockey. “These are great programs, and for us to be in that company is fabulous. Speaking for myself and Steve, we’re very proud of this achievement.” 

To be chosen as a DDRCC by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, an institution must have a strong core of investigators who are recognized as leaders in an area of digestive disease research. DDRCCs are also led by nationally and internationally prominent investigators. The funds from the NIDDK help to support efforts to build the center into a national resource on the topic.  

Dr. Don Rockey is the director of the new MUSC Digestive Disease Research Core Center. 
Dr. Don Rockey is the director of the new MUSC Digestive Disease Research Core Center, one of only 17 in the nation.

The MUSC DDRCC will provide stable funding to support some 30 basic science and clinician-scientist investigators working in the field of digestive and liver disease. They all work in areas related to the theme of the DDRCC, which covers the area of inflammation, fibrosis and organ dysfunction throughout the gastrointestinal tract. The center will also help to attract luminaries and promising mid-career investigators in gastrointestinal disease to MUSC.

“We're excited to be able to recruit people right now who would never consider us without these kinds of resources,” said Rockey.

But, according to Rockey, great programs not only recruit successful researchers, they help create them. Only by developing a pipeline to produce the next generation of researchers can a program achieve sustained excellence.

“The CDLD really aims to take very new, inexperienced investigators and give them the tools, the research resources, as well as the environment that will allow them to transition to be superstar independent researchers who focus on digestive disease.”

-- Dr. Stephen Duncan,
Director of the MUSC CDLD

And it is the goal of the CDLD is to create such a pipeline.

"The CDLD really aims to take very new, inexperienced investigators and give them the tools, the research resources, as well as the environment that will allow them to transition to be superstar independent researchers who focus on digestive disease,” said Duncan, who in addition to his role with the DDRCC also serves as director of the CDLD. Rockey serves as associate director.

Made possible by a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the CDLD provides junior investigators with a robust grant and offers them the mentorship and other resources they need to obtain independent grant funding. Once they do, they will transition to the DDRCC, opening a slot for another junior investigator. 

Dr. Stephen Duncan is director of the new Center for Biomedical Research Excellence in Digestive and Liver Disease. 
Dr. Stephen Duncan is the director of the new MUSC Center for Biomedical Research Excellence in Digestive and Liver Disease.

Currently, the center has three junior investigators: Antonis Kourtidis, Ph.D., and Eric G. Meissner, M.D., Ph.D., both assistant professors in the College of Medicine, and Chad M. Novince, Ph.D., D.D.S., an assistant professor in the College of Dental Medicine. A fourth is currently being recruited and will assume the spot of Je-Hyun Yoon, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the College of Medicine, who was to be the fourth fellow. Yoon recently obtained independent grant funding and will therefore move directly into the DDRCC.

The centers, which are highly complementary, grew from a strong collaboration between Rockey, a physician-researcher, and Duncan, a basic scientist. 

“It's very easy for basic scientists to get really focused on minutiae,” said Duncan. “But through our collaboration – Don and I work very, very well together, unusually well together – we've been able to begin to pull together an environment that allows the basic scientists to really become more facile with the problems that our physician-scientists are seeing related to the clinics and vice versa.”

The DDRCC also offers clinician-scientists much-needed protected time to pursue their research projects. 

Fostering multidisciplinary collaborations like that between Rockey and Duncan is a principal goal of both centers. To achieve this, both the DDRCC and CDLD provide grant funding to investigators through their Pilot Project programs directed by Caroline Westwater, Ph.D.

“Both the DDRCC and CDLD aim at encouraging collaborations among investigators and helping those collaborations be successful,” said Rockey.

“The collaboration between the two centers has generated a really rich environment at MUSC for us to study digestive disease research,” said Duncan.

 Both centers offer their researchers, as well as other investigators across campus, access to the research tools that are necessary to conduct cutting-edge digestive and liver disease research. The two centers share research cores in cell models, directed by Duncan, and advanced imaging, directed by John J. Lemasters, M.D., Ph.D. In addition, the DDRCC has a proteomics core directed by Richard R. Drake, Ph.D., and a clinical component, intended to provide study design and statistical support, directed by Paul Nietert, Ph.D. The CDLD also includes an animal models core, directed by Suzanne Craig, D.V.M., and statistical support through Viswanathan Ramakrishnan, Ph.D.

In addition, the centers support a common seminar series and an annual retreat focused on digestive and liver disease research that attracts digestive and liver disease researchers from around the state.

Together, these centers will help to make MUSC a powerhouse in digestive and liver disease research for years to come. The resulting research could provide new insight into treating gastrointestinal disease and be an asset for the state and nation.

“Digestive disease is a huge problem in South Carolina, as it is nationally. And it is certainly understudied,” said Duncan. “And so I think the research that will result from these grants will contribute to a growing understanding of digestive disease and, we hope, ultimately treatments.” 

They also mark MUSC’s entrée into the national arena as a major player in gastroenterology and gastrointestinal research. 

“Simply put, the goal here is to be great. We want to be the best gastroenterology program in the U.S.” 

About the Author

Kimberly McGhee