NIH MERIT Award advances fetal alcohol research at UW-Madison

By Nicole Miller, University Communications

MADISON – Susan Smith, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has received a prestigious MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health, which provides research funding for up to 10 years. Smith is an expert on fetal alcohol exposure, the leading known cause of mental retardation in the world.

MERIT awards, short for Method to Extend Research in Time, are among the most selective research grants given by the NIH. Less than 5 percent of NIH-funded investigators are selected for the awards, which recognize researchers who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity in research endeavors of special importance or promise, according to the NIH.

The grant will support Smith’s ongoing research into how alcohol damages developing fetuses. In the lab, Smith focuses on a small sub-population of fetal cells called neural crest cells that contribute to the formation of parts of the nervous system, face and heart. These cells are damaged and sometimes killed by alcohol, and children with fetal alcohol exposure can suffer damage to those organs, including visible facial malformations. Studying the effect of alcohol on chicken embryos, Smith was able to show that alcohol somehow directs the neural crest cells to end their own lives.

“Cell death is an active process,” explains Smith. “A cellular switch has to be turned on for cell death to occur. Usually the switch is suppressed, or kept silent. Alcohol is toxic because it can turn that switch on, and it does so by causing cells to release calcium.”

Now Smith seeks to understand how alcohol causes this fatal release of calcium. Specifically, she is looking for the protein on the surface of the neural crest cells where alcohol attaches. This binding ultimately leads – via a series of cellular signals – to the calcium release.

“We’re getting close,” says Smith. “Finding the first protein in the pathway is the hardest part. Basically, we’re working backwards along the signaling pathway from calcium.”

In the long run, Smith hopes this kind of basic research will yield treatments that can ameliorate the damage caused by fetal alcohol exposure.

“This MERIT award reflects both the high productivity and national recognition of Susan’s research program,” says Roger Sunde, chair of the nutritional sciences department. “It also reflects the high potential of this research to advance our understanding of and perhaps help prevent or treat fetal alcohol syndrome.”