Exploring Uncharted Biological Territory

Posted on December 11, 2023 by USA Marketing and Communications
USA Marketing and Communications

Dr. Borchert working in the lab. data-lightbox='featured'

Vast numbers of tiny mysteries are waiting to be solved for humanity’s potential good — inside our own bodies. Molecules regulate our body functions in ways we don’t understand. Trillions of microbes live in each one of us, interacting with our cells both harmfully and beneficially.

Dr. Glen Borchert, professor of pharmacology in the Frederick P. Whiddon College of Medicine, explores those uncharted territories. His many fascinating projects offer hope for fighting disease and improving the functioning of our bodies. For his investigations, he has received this year’s National Alumni Association Endowed Award for Faculty Innovation, which recognizes outstanding achievement in research.

Since 2017, Borchert has been awarded nearly $3.3 million in research grants. He has received nine awards from the National Science Foundation, more than any other South faculty member.

Last summer, he was one of 30 principal investigators invited to a National Science Foundation think tank in Airlie, Virginia. There, he teamed with six other participants to study how we communicate with our microbiome — the fungi, bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that live in and on our bodies.

His resulting research proposal was just awarded $800,000 in funding to examine the role of extracellular RNA in communicating between cells and shaping that microbiome. The grant represents a tremendous opportunity for Borchert and his collaborators, including his team at the Whiddon College of Medicine’s Borchert Laboratory.

Borchert, who also holds an appointment in the biology department in the College of Arts and Sciences, frames the many research grants his lab has received in terms of benefiting students as well as increasing knowledge. “This is great for my students,” he said of an earlier National Science Foundation award. “The opportunity to publish findings is a great experience for them in the world of science.”

His research offers exciting potential for improving human health and even saving lives. For example, the Borchert Lab is exploring how salmonella bacteria survive stressful conditions. Salmonella infections cause an estimated 1.35 million illnesses, 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths in the United States each year. Understanding the bacteria’s survival mechanisms could help make antibiotic treatments more effective.

His team also discovered a new form of transfer ribonucleic acid (tRNA) fragments that the body pumps into lung fluid to help combat respiratory viruses such as the one that causes COVID-19.

Borchert said that research would improve understanding of how the body naturally fights infections. 

“Once we’ve collected the data from testing the tRNA fragments,” he said, “we can work toward more therapeutics for patients battling viral infections.”

The University’s National Alumni Association honored Borchert and other South faculty members during its August 24 annual meeting. Other award winners:

DR. VASILIY PROKHOROV, professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, received the Andy and Carol Denny National Alumni Excellence in Teaching Award. Prokhorov’s passion for teaching benefits not only the University but also the greater community. He developed the Mobile Math Circle, a free weekly gathering of middle school and high school students guided by professional mathematicians.

DR. JINHUI WANG, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, received the Beth and Don Davis National Alumni Association Excellence in Advising Award. Wang has advised more than 160 undergraduates and 19 graduate students, and has served on 26 dissertation/thesis committees. He recently participated in a National Science Foundation grant program to work with Native American students to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

DR. TODD MCDONALD, director of the USA Center for Forensics, Information Technology and Security and a professor in the School of Computing, received the Olivia Rambo McGlothren National Alumni Association Outstanding Scholar Award. McDonald has received more than $27 million in shared and collaborative research funding during his career, including a recent $8 million grant from the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command.

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