The Beckman Institute, through its people and facilities, was one of the key players in the creation of the new Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory, the first-ever interdisciplinary nutrition and cognition research center. The center and the funding supporting its efforts means researchers can now play a greater role in an area that is increasingly seen as key to cognitive health: nutrition.
An agreement between global nutritional company Abbott and the University of Illinois led to the announcement in December of the Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory (CNLM), and of an annual “Grand Challenge” competition funded by Abbott to support research in this area. Beckman researcher Neal Cohen was chosen as the Illinois Director for the new center.
Cohen said the center and the Grand Challenge will provide a new source of funding, but also a chance for campus researchers to make a difference in the area of human health.
“It’s an opportunity to do applied or translational work that can do some real good,” Cohen said. “It emphasizes areas that already exist as strengths (neuroscience and nutrition) on campus and gives them a new venue in which to operate.”
That venue isn’t limited to neuroscience or nutrition researchers, or those who are affiliated with Beckman.
“For the rest of our colleagues the attraction would be to have truly team-based work, create partnerships among people with lots of different expertise, and have a strong industrial partner where the work we’re doing can translate into something tangible that could help people,” Cohen said. “That’s the opportunity we are being given.”
The creation of the Center for Nutrition, Learning and Memory involved four campus units and their directors: the Beckman Institute, the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), the Division of Nutritional Sciences and the Neuroscience Program. Cohen, who is also Director of the Neuroscience Program, is the Illinois Director of the Center for Nutrition, Learning and Memory, while Keith Garleb, Director of Global Discovery Research at Abbott Nutrition, is the Abbott Director.
Abbott has had research ties to Illinois for more than 20 years and has a site at the Research Park on south campus, but the new center has its origins in visits by company officials to Beckman and IGB facilities, and talks with the directors of those two premier interdisciplinary campus research centers.
Beckman Institute Director Art Kramer and former IGB Director Harris Lewin had initial talks with Abbott about creating a research center on campus for nutrition, learning, and memory. Later, current IGB Director Gene Robinson joined in the efforts, along with Division of Nutritional Science faculty members Rod Johnson and Sharon Donovan. Johnson and Donovan have worked over the years with Abbott Nutrition, a division of Abbott, on individual projects.
Kramer said the company is providing not just funding opportunities for researchers at Beckman and on campus, but also a chance to expand the role of science in its business.
“Abbott Nutrition wants to be known as the company that takes science seriously,” he said. “They are not required to; it’s not like new drugs where you have to go through FDA trials. You don’t have to do that in nutrition.
“I think, and rightly so, they want to be known as the company that takes science seriously in everything they develop. We’ll do some of the basic research and some of the translational research that will help them do that. So it is a partnership.”
Kramer agreed with Cohen that the new center will benefit both Beckman and its faculty members who take part in the research.
“It provides opportunities, and expands our research portfolio and horizons,” Kramer said. “Researchers who get involved in the center don’t have to be people who have expertise in nutrition. Instead they need to be interested in bringing their expertise to bear, whether in computational science, physiology, psychology, or a multitude of other domains, on important questions relevant to the relationship between nutrition and cognition.”
The Center for Nutrition, Learning and Memory isn’t a project that will take years to get under way. Offices for the center have been located on the first floor of Beckman, and workshops have been held to inform researchers about submitting research proposals. Scientists from the University will make up one-half of the 10-member executive committee that evaluates the proposals, while Abbott scientists will form the other half.
“We’ll start off with white papers, and the way we write the request for proposals will be to strongly encourage interdisciplinary collaboration between Beckman and IGB and other places on campus, especially Nutrition and Neuroscience,” Kramer said.
The timetable calls for those invited to submit full proposals to have them in by March 6, with the award announcement later than May 16. Grants will be from one to three years, with awards ranging from $200K to $1M.
Cohen said they want research topics that involve nutrition, learning, and memory, but also are based on a team approach.
“It’s important that people see this as a way to do cutting-edge, interdisciplinary, team-based work,” Cohen said. “This is not an individual RO1, an individual investigator kind of program. We take very seriously the idea that it’s a Grand Challenge.
“The way we see our interest and Abbott’s interest in addressing the Grand Challenge is by, right from the start, having interdisciplinary teams. We see Beckman and IGB as being central because they are the places where people from all over campus can come together and work collaboratively.”
Kramer said Cohen was the right choice to lead the new center for Illinois.
“He’s a world-class scientist and has the capability, both Gene and I agreed, to lead something like this,” Kramer said. “He’s good at thinking broadly and you have to think expansively for this project because it goes beyond what any of us have done before. We needed a point person and he’s our man.”
Cohen said the center is a chance to build a unique partnership between the two premier interdisciplinary research facilities on campus, and with Abbott, a company that has extensive, worldwide research interests.
“We can combine the best features of both IGB and Beckman and produce an interdisciplinary, team approach to science that is bigger than either of the two institutes to enhance learning and memory,” Cohen said. “With Abbott, we’re talking about people who know how to take the things we find and turn them into products that actually help people.
“We don’t know how to do that. We know how to test compounds and possibly develop new ones, and we know how to begin to understand their mechanisms in animal and human models. But Abbott can take our research and turn it into a product to create direct benefits to society from the research that we’re doing.”