MU Researcher Lands Large Grant To Explore Causes Of Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Erika Boerman’s passion for her work is palpable. The excitement grows in her eyes as she points to an image on her computer screen of a blood vessel made up of vibrant blues, greens and reds. She talks about her work with a $350,000 confocal microscope as her zen.
“I love talking about blood vessels to people because there is so much more going on that people don’t realize,” Boerman said in her narrow lab at the end of a quiet hallway in the MU Medical Sciences Building.
Boerman, an MU assistant professor of medical pharmacology and physiology, has received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of perivascular nerves in inflammatory bowel disease. Boerman plans to study the blood flow in mice and determine why inflammatory bowel disease impairs the blood vessels and nerves around them.
“Perivascular nerves can be thought of as the ‘gas and brakes’ in terms of blood flow,” Boerman said, “and in IBD, and in a number of other diseases, you tend to have more constricted blood vessels, and it’s harder to get blood into the gut.”
Inflammatory bowel disease is an umbrella term for two types of chronic conditions in the gastrointestinal tract. Crohn’s disease is found in any part of the gastrointestinal tract, and ulcerative colitis is commonly found in the colon or large intestine. In addition to genetics and diet, inflammatory bowel disease has been linked to environmental factors.
Both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can involve mild to severe inflammation. Depending on the condition, symptoms can include persistent diarrhea, blood in the stool, abdominal pain and weight loss. There is no known cure.
A growing issue
“When I talk about my research, I like to stress the magnitude of IBD to people,” Boerman said. “It affects people’s quality of life dramatically.”
Roughly 1.3% of the U.S. population has inflammatory bowel disease. The number of people it affects is increasing rapidly each year, Boerman said. She said the disease has a strong connection to a Western lifestyle and is attributed to diets that are high in fat and processed foods.
Boerman noticed the people in her life diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease had also experienced cardiovascular complications. That’s how she got the idea to examine the condition from the vasculature perspective she specializes in.
“Nobody is really looking at the blood vessel component of the disease, so that is really where I’ve gotten my niche,” Boerman said.
Treatment of inflammatory bowel disease includes dietary changes, therapy or medication.
“A lot of our findings turn out to be the foundation for what drug companies will pick up down the line,” Boerman said. “The goal is to uncover meaningful targets that could be developed into a treatment.”
How she found her niche
In 2011, Boerman began her postdoctoral studies in vascular biology after earning her bachelor’s and graduate degrees from Michigan State University.
When Boerman came to MU, most of the labs on her floor were empty. Now the winding corridor is filled with labs and researchers, and Boerman’s mentor is just down the hall.
Boerman said she is the product of a great training environment. Steven Segal served as the postdoctoral mentor on her first independent research grant and was one of the first to encourage Boerman to pursue research on inflammatory bowel disease.
“I appreciate him so much more now that I’m running my own lab,” she said. “I realize now that being a great mentor in academic research is extremely difficult, in some ways more difficult than the research itself.”
“Going to work every day in the lab is never the same thing,” Elizabeth Grunz-Borgmann, the lab manager, said.
Boerman’s research team consists of Grunz-Borgmann and Samuel Jenkins, who is working on his master’s degree in pharmacology and physiology. The $1.8 million will pay for salaries, lab equipment, student costs, day-to-day expenses and a mouse colony.
“The most difficult thing about research in the lab is funding,” Grunz-Borgmann said. “When you don’t have it, you can’t perform the experiments, and you are scraping by to try to get preliminary data together.”
Boerman drafted the grant proposal during the city-mandated lockdown last year when there was time to write, which she said was “the hardest part."
“You need to think through what the outcomes of the experiments will be and what will happen if that’s not how they turn out,” she said.
It took two months for her to write the research proposal. Boerman read scientific publications to apply them to her own hypothesis. There are also technical aspects of the proposal to include such as letters of recommendation, mouse-breeding strategies and equipment costs.
The grant proposal was due in June 2020, and Boerman received notice of the award in March.
Kerry McDonald, chair of Medical Pharmacology and Physiology, said he witnessed Boerman’s persistence on the project.
“She came up with creative ways to communicate her ideas in grant writing,” McDonald said, adding that the grant carries some weight.
“This grant fits into the Association of American Universities Phase 1 indicators, which is a very important metric for us to retain our high status as a research institute,” he said.
The grant spans five years.