U.Va. Biologist Michael P. Timko Receives Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award

May 11, 2010 — University of Virginia biology professor Michael P. Timko was recently named recipient of a Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award, which provides $100,000 in annual research support for three years.

Timko will pursue the novel use of probiotic bacteria to promote tissue repair in a common, but life-threatening inflammatory bowel disease observed in premature and low-birth-weight infants.

The disease, necrotizing enterocolitis, afflicts an estimated 25,000 infants yearly in the United States.

While its cause remains unknown, the disease involves a decrease in blood flow to the intestine, resulting in tissue death and cessation of normal mucus production, which then leaves the intestine susceptible to infection from certain bacteria. Patients often develop severe complications, including systemic infection, sepsis, and consequent multi-system organ failure.

Despite advancements in perinatal care, mortality rates following the onset of necrotizing enterocolitis have not changed significantly in recent decades and remain high. Currently there are no effective means to counteract the disease except to offer antibiotics and to surgically remove dead or dying tissue, which frequently is ineffective.

For many intestinal inflammatory conditions, however, evidence is accumulating that the use of certain strains of probiotics may be helpful in prevention and treatment. Probiotics are noninfectious microbes of human origin that have been safely consumed by humans in various fermented foods and dairy products for thousands of years.

Based upon pioneering research by Timko and his collaborators, demonstrating that certain compounds (small peptides) are useful in promoting intestinal injury repair, Timko now intends to explore the potential synergistic effects of their targeted delivery using probiotic supplementation.

The long-term goal is to transfer the knowledge gained from the proposed research into the development of food-grade probiotic bacteria, which can be the basis of therapeutic infant formula for the universal low-cost prevention and treatment of necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants.

"If Michael Timko's innovative approach is successful, it could lead to new strategies not only for managing NEC, but serve as a template for the probiotic delivery of therapeutic agents for other gastrointestinal diseases," said Frederick Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation.

"Human health depends upon proper function of the intestinal mucosa," Timko said. "By using specifically modified forms of probiotic bacteria, microbes that naturally colonize the gut and help balance the intestinal flora to aid with digestion and absorption of nutrients, we can hopefully get a more targeted and sustained release of the therapeutic peptides that will have an immediate impact on infants in distress."

A molecular biologist, Timko also is seeking ways to genetically enhance widely consumed foods to provide more stable and better sources of nutrition.

"Our goal is to help, even if in a small way, to alleviate the disastrous burden of hunger and malnutrition in the U.S. and the developing world," he said.

Each year, The Hartwell Foundation announces its selection of the Top Ten Centers of Biomedical Research in the United States, inviting each center to hold an internal open competition to identify four nominees for a Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award. U.Va. has been chosen among the Hartwell Top Ten every year since 2007.

Timko is one of only 10 investigators selected this year for an award and the third U.Va. researcher to receive the honor. Previous Hartwell Investigators include U.Va. School of Medicine biomedical engineer Richard J. Price, in 2007, and associate professor of biomedical engineering Brian P. Helmke, in 2008.

"Dr. Timko's work is highly innovative because it seeks to combine preventive medicine with advanced therapeutics in the human gut, which is a very complex system," said Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va. vice president for research. "The idea of using microorganisms for designing therapy is not an obvious idea, so this project is a superb example of experienced scientists exploring at the frontier and taking risks to produce major advances."

Dombrose said The Hartwell Foundation seeks to fund early stage, cutting-edge applied biomedical research with the potential to benefit children of the United States. "We seek to inspire innovation and achievement by offering individual researchers an opportunity to realize their professional goals," he said. "Michael Timko exemplifies the type of researcher The Hartwell Foundation wants to support."

In selecting awardees, The Hartwell Foundation takes into account the nature of the proposed innovation, the extent to which a strategic or translational approach might promote rapid clinical application of research results, the supportive role and extent of collaboration in the proposed research, and the institutional commitment to provide encouragement and technical support to the investigator.

For information about The Hartwell Foundation, visit www.thehartwellfoundation.org.