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Boettcher Investigators

3 CU School of Medicine Researchers Chosen for 2024 Class of Boettcher Investigators

Each receives a $250,000 award to support up to three years of their medical research.

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Written by Mark Harden on June 3, 2024

Three faculty members from the University of Colorado School of Medicine have been selected among eight leading Colorado biomedical researchers as members of the Boettcher Foundation’s 2024 class of Boettcher Investigators, each receiving a $250,000 award to support up to three years of their research.

The awards were presented under the foundation’s Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Awards Program, which aims to support scientific innovation in Colorado by providing biomedical research funding for early-career investigators at Colorado’s leading research institutions and hospitals. Since the program’s inception 15 years ago, 106 Boettcher Investigators have received more than $150 million in additional independent research funding from federal, state, and private sources.

“We are thrilled to support our 2024 Boettcher Investigators, and as proud investors in their work, we are optimistic that these distinguished researchers will persist in expanding the frontiers of knowledge and innovation in medicine,” says Katie Kramer, president and CEO of the Boettcher Foundation. “The groundbreaking research of our investigators not only promises to revolutionize health care, but also marks a significant milestone in our commitment to advancing the well-being of Coloradans as we commemorate this special 15th anniversary for our Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Awards.”

The eight Boettcher Investigators in the 2024 class represent six Colorado research institutions: The CU School of Medicine as well as Colorado State University, National Jewish Health, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and University of Denver.

Here are the 2024 Class of Boettcher Investigators from the CU School of Medicine and their research topics:

Investigating cardiac allograft vasculopathy

Benjamin Kopecky, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Division of Cardiology, Section of Heart Failure/Transplant – Dissecting the smooth muscle cell pathobiology driving cardiac allograft vasculopathy.

“It is an honor to be named a Boettcher Investigator,” Kopecky says. “This award will provide the opportunity to accelerate our research program, take on higher-risk projects, and leverage state-of-the-art techniques to tackle important questions with immediate and direct translational impact.”

In explaining his research, Kopecky says that cardiac allograft vasculopathy “is the form of transplant vasculopathy that impacts heart transplantation. Cardiac allograft vasculopathy is characterized by progressive narrowing of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels which supply blood to the heart. Patients with cardiac allograft vasculopathy often do not know they have the disease, and sadly, the first knowledge of the disease is when the patient experiences sudden death. Even when the patient has awareness of the disease, there is no therapy to halt the disease.”

He adds: “My lab seeks to better understand why the heart develops cardiac allograft vasculopathy. We will dissect one specific cell type (smooth muscle cell) and how this cell goes from a normal, essential cell within the heart and transforms into a cell that has led to this disease.”

A new look at perinatal ovary development

Jennifer McKey, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Section of Developmental Biology – Investigating the contribution of follicle activation in the perinatal ovary to the establishment of female fertility.

“The Boettcher Foundation has a long history of supporting excellent research in Colorado, and as a new investigator, I couldn’t be more thrilled and honored to begin my independent career with their support,” McKey says. “The Webb-Waring award is a fantastic opportunity to kickstart my lab’s research on perinatal ovary development and establishment of female fertility.”

In explaining her research, McKey says: “Shortly after birth, many ovarian follicles begin to grow in the ovary, in a process termed first-wave folliculogenesis, but these never become ovulated eggs, and do not contribute to female fertility. Why is so much of the mammalian female’s reproductive potential ‘sacrificed’ in perinatal life? Our research will investigate the biological significance of first-wave follicles and determine their role during the establishment and maintenance of female fertility and overall female health.”

Understanding how sensory thresholds are established

Jessica Nelson, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology – Molecular-genetic mechanisms underlying establishment of sensory thresholds.

“I am so honored to receive this award and so proud of all the members of my lab for generating the underlying preliminary data,” Nelson says. “With this funding from the Boettcher Foundation, we will be able to take our research in a new direction that we hope will provide insights into how neuronal circuits for processing sensory information develop and function.”

In explaining her research, Nelson says: “Sensory thresholds enable animals to distinguish between stimuli in the environment that require a response, and those that can be ignored. A wide variety of human neurological disorders result in differences in the way individuals handle sensory information. In addition, properly-tuned sensory thresholds are essential for our daily functioning. Nonetheless, it is not yet known how sensory thresholds are established and tuned during development. This award will support a new project in the lab examining how a cell adhesion protein regulates the establishment of sensory thresholds. We predict that this cell adhesion protein provides a molecular link between a handful of known regulators that were previously not known to function together.”

Photos at top: From left, Benjamin Kopecky, MD, PhD; Jennifer McKey, PhD; and Jessica Nelson, PhD.