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UND health researcher receives $4.5 million grant for COVID research

Abraam Yakoub is a professor in the department of biomedical sciences.

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Abraam Yakoub received a pair of grants from the National Institutes of Health for research into COVID-19, as well as neurodegenerative disorders.
Submitted photo / UND

GRAND FORKS — A University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) researcher has received a multi-million-dollar grant for a research project that seeks to push the boundaries of COVID-19 research.

According to an SMHS news release, Abraam Yakoub, a professor in the department of biomedical sciences, received a $4.5 million grant over five years from the National Institutes of Health. The grant was awarded through the NIH Director’s Transformative Award, a program that supports researchers doing cutting-edge work with the potential to set new medical standards. Yakoub joins the ranks of more than 40 researchers awarded funds this year, at locations including the Mayo Clinic and MIT and Harvard University.

“I think what we're doing here is extremely cutting edge, extremely innovative, very transformative and paradigm shifting,” Yakoub said. “We hope people in North Dakota can get more excited and more interested in both research and supporting research.”

Yakoub’s project aims to examine the illness via what is called a system-based approach, rather than thinking of the virus as specific to the lungs. Yakoub will lead a team of people looking at how the coronavirus impacts other organs in the body.

In particular, the research team will study if the immune response to the virus might become so exaggerated in some individuals that it ends up hurting them, instead of helping them. Yakoub said his experiments could lead to discovering the “black box of COVID-19.”

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“Why is the virus killing millions of people?” Yakoub asked. “Is it just a lung infection or something beyond? We told the NIH we have an idea why this might be happening, and they liked the idea. This award is a testimony to our exceptionally innovative, trailblazing research program. It means we really are thinking outside the box in order to crack a scientific mystery.”

According to the news release, Francis Collins, former director of the NIH, praised this year’s crop of Transformative Award winners, calling their ideas “exceptionally novel and creative.” Many of the other researchers are also studying COVID-19.

“These visionary investigators come from a wide breadth of career stages and show that groundbreaking science can happen at any career level given the right opportunity,” Collins said.

Yakoub will also be bringing more research dollars to the SMHS in the form of a second NIH grant for $3.5 million, and will take a similarly creative approach to studying treatments of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The former, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the No. 3 killer of North Dakotans, after heart disease and cancer.

The latter research program will consist of directing the evolution of a protein, to the point where it has therapeutic uses for neurodegenerative disorders. It is a branch of his research where the aim is to take one disease or virus, and use it in a cure for another.

Yakoub said his work has the potential to reveal the inner workings in illnesses that impact people around the world. He is hoping his projects shine a light on the need to support research in the state.

“What we're doing, it's not for me — it's for us,” he said.

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