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Professor Radhakrishna Rao of UTHSC Receives $1.68 Million Grant Renewal for Intestinal Function Research

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Dr. Radhakrishna Rao, left, pictured with Bhargavi Manda, MS, Avtar Sing Meena, PhD, and Pradeep Shukla, PhD, has received a $1.68 million renewal grant to study the mechanisms of how the intestine blocks certain toxins from entering the blood stream.

Radhakrishna Rao, PhD, professor in the Department of Physiology in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has received a $1.68 million grant renewal from the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases to study the mechanisms of how the intestine blocks certain toxins from entering the bloodstream.

The award will be used to support a project titled, “Intestinal Mucosal Protection by Epidermal Growth Factor.” The funds will be distributed over five years.

In his 16th year of research with more than $5 million awarded in total funding, the focus of Dr. Rao’s project is to determine the molecular mechanisms involved in regulation of the epithelial barrier function in the colon. Epithelial barrier function occurs when the epithelium, a layer of cells that lines the colonic opening, forms a fence to prevent diffusion of harmful entities that are abundant in the area. However, when the “tight junction” — a vital protein complex in the epithelium — is disrupted, it allows toxins and pathogens to go into the bloodstream and causes a condition known as “leaky gut.” Because of this, gastrointestinal diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, develop.

Previous research efforts in Dr. Rao’s laboratory have identified occludin, a tight junction protein, as the main factor of the tight junction. Planned studies by Dr. Rao and his research team will determine which proteins interact with occludin, how those interactions are altered by radiation exposure, and whether antioxidants and probiotics are able to prevent tight junction disruption and loss of intestinal function as a result. If successful, insight will be provided into the details of tight junction disruption in the colon, and also the therapeutic benefit of antioxidants and probiotics in prevention and treatment of intestinal radiation syndrome, as well as other gastrointestinal diseases.

“The current renewal of funding for another five years will enable us to take the project to the next level and develop novel tight junction-based therapeutics for the treatment of gastrointestinal diseases,” Dr. Rao said.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has dedicated its efforts to all areas of research related to diabetes and other endocrine and metabolic diseases; digestive diseases, nutritional disorders, and obesity; and kidney, urologic, and hematologic diseases to improve people’s health and quality of life.​ For more information, visit www.niddk.nih.gov.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.