Voucher Program Promotes Unexpected Research

Funds for access to shared resources at Duke allow investigators to chase down new ideas

March 19, 2014

In 2012, as John Perfect, MD, studied the inner workings of the genes of Cryptococcus neoformans, a fungus that infects humans and kill 600,000 people a year, he realized he was only looking at half of a problem.

“There is always two sides to an infection—the pathogen and the host,” said Perfect, James B Duke Professor of Medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases. “Our original grant was looking at how the yeast was changing its genes in response to the host, but I was also curious about how the host was reacting to the yeast.”

Problem was, the grant only funded research into one side of the equation, and Perfect didn’t have extra funds to pay for the use of the Genome Sequencing and Analysis Core Resource in the laboratory of Geoffrey Ginsburg that would allow him to look at the modified gene expression in infected animals.

That’s where Duke’s Voucher Program came in.

At Duke, investigators like Perfect have a unique opportunity to access technical resources from brain imaging to gene sequencing through a voucher program specifically designed to promote exciting new studies that are not yet externally funded. Perfect applied to this program and in 2013 used the funds to study how monocytes in mice regulated their genes 14 days after being infected with Cryptococcus.

This joint program with the School of Medicine and the Duke Translational Research Institute offers vouchers from $500 to $10,000 for investigators to spend at any of 62 core facilities or shared resources maintained at Duke. The sources of funding for this program, which began in 2010, include the School of Medicine and Duke’s Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA), provided by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).

Until this year, the School of Medicine and DTRI had offered separate voucher programs, but administrators saw advantages in combining the programs.

“We felt that merging the two programs would allow us to look at the full spectrum of applications at once and double the number of available vouchers open to the whole community,” said Sally Kornbluth, vice dean for basic sciences.

Applications for the Spring 2014 Voucher Program are now being accepted.  The deadline for this application cycle is April 30.

Faculty with primary appointments in a School of Medicine department at the Assistant, Associate or Professor level can apply for vouchers in any category of research. Faculty outside of the School of Medicine may apply for vouchers if their proposals focus on translational projects, which will be eligible for funding through the CTSA.

The goal of the program is to provide investigators with access to experts in the core service areas and expand investigators’ ability to generate data that will support the development of future research ideas.

“We were able to use the voucher money to gather and explore data that simply wasn’t included in our original grant,” Perfect said. That preliminary data will allow Perfect’s team to write a paper and move toward future funding to find ways to fight these infections. “I am so appreciative of the Duke environment that allowed us to apply for this Voucher program to  branch out and extend our research from our original grant,” Perfect said. “It has helped us ‘move the science’.”