In 2013 the University of Florida announced its Preeminence Plan to help reach the university’s goal of establishing itself as one of the nation’s best public research universities. With funding from the Florida legislature, UF set out to identify, recruit and hire faculty members capable of taking on the globe’s biggest challenges, such as feeding the world, preventing infectious disease outbreaks, optimizing early childhood development, developing renewable energy, building cybersecurity systems and understanding the human nervous system.
Only a few years after this initiative was set in motion, UF is already experiencing the benefits of the dozens of leading scientists who have joined the university, opened new avenues of research and developed exciting new collaborations with existing UF faculty members. Gordon Mitchell, Ph.D., who joined the college as a professor in the department of physical therapy, was one of PHHP’s first hires under the preeminence plan. He is an internationally recognized expert on respiratory neurobiology, spinal plasticity and developing new treatments for spinal cord injuries and neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS. He was among the first scientists to recognize the importance of neuroplasticity — the brain and spinal cord’s ability to adapt in response to injury and disease — in the neural system controlling breathing. His innovative approach to strengthening breathing ability by manipulating a patient’s oxygen levels could have life-changing implications for people who depend upon a respirator. His discoveries also led to unexpected applications, since oxygen manipulations also improve leg and arm movements in patients suffering from paralysis. For more information on Dr. Mitchell’s research, please see the story on page 7.
Shortly after joining UF, Dr. Mitchell established the Center for Respiratory Research and Rehabilitation to bring together researchers from across campus to advance the understanding and treatment of neuromuscular disorders that compromise respiratory and non-respiratory movements. The center supports the research careers of a number of investigators in our college, including Dr. Ianessa Humbert and Dr. Emily Plowman (featured in this issue), as well as scientists in several other UF colleges and Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville.
Now in its second year, the center can count multiple successes:
- The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute awarded center leaders a training grant to support doctoral students and postdoctoral associates who are conducting research that could lead to breathing improvements in patients with spinal cord injury or degenerative neuromuscular diseases, including muscular dystrophy, Pompe disease and ALS.
- Center investigators received a $7.5 million grant through a National Institutes of Health Director’s Common Fund program, Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions, one of two such grants awarded nationally. The UF project, led by Dr. Don Bolser in the College of Veterinary Medicine, brings together 10 center investigators, as well as researchers at the University of South Florida and University of Louisville, to study how anatomical and functional elements of the nervous system that control breathing and airway defense adapt during disease. This grant is one of many awarded to center researchers during the past year.
- Dr. Mitchell and Dr. David Fuller, the center’s associate director and a professor of physical therapy, were invited to serve as guest editors for a special issue of the journal Experimental Neurology focused on respiratory neuroplasticity.
- Dr. Mitchell served as the keynote speaker for the 2017 annual meeting of the American Spinal Injury Association held in Albuquerque in April.
The UF Center for Respiratory Research and Rehabilitation is generating attention from respiratory researchers all over the country. However, more than enhancing UF’s reputation, the center’s work has a real impact on the education and preparation of our students, and potentially, the millions of patients for whom breathing and other movements are a struggle.