Building the research of muscle

Building the research of muscle

The UF Myology Institute is building the research of muscle thanks in part to a $10.76 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

By Doug Bennett

2016-02-09_Lee_Sweeney-2695-Edit-EditA year after it was formed, the UF Myology Institute is gaining strength in the world of muscle biology research.

It’s been a busy stretch for H. Lee Sweeney, Ph.D., the world-renowned researcher who came to the UF College of Medicine last year to launch the institute. Its leaders and researchers aim to unravel the causes and disordered processes of neuromuscular and muscle-tissue diseases, evaluate novel treatments and conduct clinical trials for neuromuscular diseases.

Under Sweeney’s guidance, the institute now has 33 primary members working on various aspects of neuromuscular disease research. That’s just the start: Efforts are under way to expand clinical trials in muscular dystrophy research. A collaboration with the College of Veterinary Medicine is expected to bring innovative treatments for local dogs that have neuromuscular disorders — research that could one day benefit humans. Sweeney also is working on a partnership with a prominent myology institute in France and a network of European researchers, which would bring trainees and experts with an interest in cardiac muscle biology to UF.

In late January, Sweeney used an international myology symposium at UF — itself a sign of the institute’s burgeoning presence — to debut its recent work to the world.

“The idea is to coalesce all of the resources and the talent that is here in muscle biology so that we do not only basic research but also clinical research and translational work to get our discoveries to patients who have neuromuscular diseases,” Sweeney said.

The talent pool got deeper with the recent hiring of Karyn Esser, Ph.D., a basic muscle biology expert, as an assistant director of the institute and a professor of physiology and functional genomics, Sweeney said. Another key development was Sweeney’s role in landing a Senator Paul D. Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Cooperative Research Center at UF. In August, the center won first-year funding for a five-year, $10.76 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study ways to address muscle degeneration caused by the disease.

Sweeney said he is especially encouraged by the veterinary college partnership. Pet owners whose animals already have neuromuscular problems would get access to emerging treatments such as gene therapies, while researchers gather valuable information about the effectiveness and long-term safety of such approaches. Ultimately, those therapies could come to benefit humans after further study and trials, Sweeney said.

While Sweeney carries an international reputation, he’s also quick to point out that having exceptional colleagues and a commitment from leadership drew him to UF.

“There was already a tremendous strength here at UF in muscle biology. I have been cooperating with people here for many years. The challenge is to come into a place as strong as this and try to make it stronger,” Sweeney said.