Two CSU faculty among eight Colorado researchers named Boettcher Investigators

Two Colorado State University faculty members have been named to the 2022 class of Boettcher Investigators, recipients of grant funding through the Boettcher Foundation’s Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Awards Program.

The honor goes to Jaclyn Stephens, an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, and Allison Vilander, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology.

The award supports promising, early-career scientific researchers, allowing them to advance their independent research in Colorado and compete for major federal and private awards in the future. Each Boettcher Investigator will receive a $235,000 grant to support up to three years of biomedical research.

Jaclyn Stephens
Jaclyn Stephens

Yoga and brain injuries

Stephens plans to use the funding on a project involving yoga and chronic brain injuries. Although there are many treatment strategies in the early weeks and months after injury, millions of people are living with significant physical disability and markedly impaired brain function. An estimated 2.9 million individuals sustain brain injuries in the U.S. each year, and individuals living in Colorado are at an elevated risk of brain injury, due to widespread availability of recreational sports that can elicit head trauma like mountain biking, skiing, and snowboarding

Stephens plans to build on evidence suggesting that yoga could reduce disability and even improve brain function in people with chronic brain injuries. She will measure changes in balance and heart rate regulation after a hatha yoga and comparison exercise intervention in adults with chronic brain injuries. She also plans to measure changes in brain function and potentially link functional improvements to changes in brain function.

Stephens said this work will set the foundation for a competitive federal grant proposal and large-scale study where she would systematically compare the effects of yoga to other exercise interventions on functional capacities and brain function.

Preventing rotavirus

Vilander’s project focuses on rotavirus, an intestinal pathogen responsible for the death of approximately 215,000 children each year, primarily in low- and middle-income countries. There are two licensed oral rotavirus vaccines, but Vilander said they underperform in these countries, leaving children vulnerable to rotavirus illness and death. The immune response to vaccines – especially those delivered orally – is often reduced in low- and middle-income countries, and the reason is poorly understood.

Allison Vilander
Allison Vilander

One suspected cause of the decreased immune response to rotavirus vaccination is environmental enteric dysfunction, a condition that often has no overt clinical signs and causes increased inflammation in the small intestine and increased gut permeability. The causes of the vaccine failure in this condition are not understood, and Vilander aims to enhance scientific understanding of this failure in environmental enteric dysfunction.

She will investigate the effects of a novel, genetically altered probiotic bacterium, Lactobacillus acidophilus, that expresses immune stimulating proteins on response to rotavirus infection in a mouse model of environmental enteric dysfunction. The organism has the potential to serve as an intervention for environmental enteric dysfunction and as a next-generation rotavirus vaccine adjuvant to decrease disease and death in low- and middle-income countries.

‘Immense beneficial impacts’

The other Boettcher Investigators work in teaching and research positions at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, University of Colorado Boulder and National Jewish Health.

“At a time when we are reminded of how vital biomedical research is to a healthy society, the Boettcher Foundation is honored to invest in these eight exceptional early-career researchers as they investigate causes and treatments of disease, injury, and more,” said Katie Kramer, president and CEO of the Boettcher Foundation. “We know the ripple effects of their leading research at our beloved Colorado institutions will have immense beneficial impacts for people far into the future.”

With the newest class, the 12-year-old Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Awards program has accelerated the breakthrough work of 90 Boettcher Investigators. Since 2020, 50% of the investigators have been women researchers, compared to 35% during the program’s first nine years. In total, the researchers have attracted more than $110 million in additional federal, state and private research funding. Additionally, investigators have published more than 100 articles and registered eight patent applications.

“The Colorado BioScience Association congratulates the newest class of Boettcher Investigators and thanks the Boettcher Foundation for its vision to advance Colorado’s leadership in health innovation by supporting researchers during the critical, early stages of their careers.” said Elyse Blazevich, Colorado BioScience Association president and CEO. “The Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Awards program makes a critical contribution to our state’s momentum as a leading national and international hub for life sciences.”

For more information about the Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Awards, visit the Boettcher Foundation website.