Peer Review Mentoring Committees yield results

January 22, 2015

When Quyen Hoang, Ph.D., first heard about a new group at the IU School of Medicine designed to assist faculty with grant applications, he was skeptical. Wasn’t he the best expert on his own work? But after meeting with a Peer Review Mentoring Committee, he was convinced -- and so were his reviewers at the National Institutes of Health.

An assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, Dr. Hoang came to Peer Review Mentoring Committees with an NIH grant application that received an impact score of 68 in the 54th percentile. After reshaping the application based on the group’s input, he received a score of 18 in the 5th percentile -- the top 5 percent among all applicants.

Quyen Hoang, Ph.D. | Photo By Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

"That is an outstanding result," said Michael Vasko, Ph.D., Paul Stark Professor of Pharmacology, who serves as chair of the IUSM Neurosciences Peer Review Mentoring Committee. "It put this proposal at the top of the stack."

The turnaround time on the whole process -- from contacting the committee to submitting the revised application? A mere three weeks.

"I rewrote a lot of the grant," Dr. Hoang said. "The organization of the application -- everything -- was changed. The committee asked a lot of questions that I had presumed common knowledge. This helped me realize the need to fill in the knowledge gaps and develop a better layout. The committee really helped."

Established in May 2014, the Peer Review Mentoring Committees were created by the IU School of Medicine, in collaboration with the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, to provide faculty access to scientists with a proven track record of successful grant applications to the NIH. There are currently three Peer Review Mentoring Committees focused on neurosciences, cardiology and obesity/metabolism. The program is modeled after the Indiana CTSI Program Development Teams, a similar, successful program launched during the creation of the institute in 2008.

Dr. Hoang’s research proposal focused on the need to provide a detailed understanding of the structure and function of LRRK2, an enzyme, which has long been seen as a target in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease due to its over-activation in people with the condition. The development of LRRK2-inhibiting drugs has met with failure over the past decade, however, due to adverse side effects encountered during early preclinical trials.

"These side effects are caused by targeting the ATP-binding site in the kinase domain," Dr. Hoang said. "Therefore, it’s critical to consider alternative mechanism-based approaches to modulating LRRK2. This grant is mostly about solving a protein structure that is very, very big, thus a difficult task. So we are also trying to solve the structure in pieces, which is much easier and a lot more feasible."

The Neurosciences PRMC pointed out that the original application put the project's most ambitious goals in the opening section -- the aspect of the research that Dr. Hoang also found the most exciting -- but which had the unintended effect of making the project’s scope seem unattainable. The new application restructured the goals to demonstrate that each one acted as a step in a larger process. Dr. Hoang also said that writing a grant application is different from writing a scientific paper, in that "the latter is a report of scientific discovery whereas the former is a sales pitch." After the review, he put the relevance of the work to Parkinson's disease at the forefront rather than leading with nuts-and-bolts problems related to unraveling an enzyme's biochemical functions and its mechanism of regulation.

"A lot of times we’re too close to the work ourselves to see potential shortcomings as we’re writing our grants," said Dr. Vasko, also a professor of anesthesia and of medicine at the IU School of Medicine. "Historically speaking, everyone worked on their grants in isolation. Having peer reviews at the local level gives everybody a chance to improve their application."

Working through the application process in isolation also negatively impacts young investigators in greater numbers since the modern research environment has grown increasingly competitive due to limited federal funds, he said. Peer Review Mentoring Committee groups give scientists at the start of their careers immediate access to the grant-writing knowledge of their more experienced peers.

"There’s an issue of the significance of the work and its impact, and then there's the issue of the 'grantsmanship,'" Dr. Vasko said. "That has a lot more to do with how you communicate the significance and the innovation of your science."

The current goal of the committees is raising awareness about the groups to ensure everyone knows they’re ready and willing to provide assistance, he added.

"This is really a resource that’s helpful for grant writing strategy," Dr. Hoang said. "I would encourage everyone to use it."

Additional members of the Neurosciences PRMC are Elliot J. Androphy, M.D., chair and Kampen-Norins Professor of Dermatology; Aaron Cohen-Gadol, M.D., associate professor of neurological surgery; Theodore R. Cummins, professor and interim chair of pharmacology and toxicology; Sujuan Gao, Ph.D., professor of biostatistics; Kathryn Jones, Ph.D., professor and chair of Anatomy and Cell Biology; R. Mark Payne, M.D., professor of pediatrics and of medical and molecular genetics; Tammy Sajdyk, Ph.D., associate research professor of psychiatry; Fletcher A. White, Ph.D., Vergil K. Stoelting Professor of Anesthesia; and Karmen K. Yoder, Ph.D., associate professor of radiology and imaging sciences. Dr. Androphy is also a professor of microbiology and immunology and of anatomy and cell biology. Dr. White is also professor of pharmacology and toxicology and of ophthalmology. Dr. Sajdyk is also a research navigator at the Indiana CTSI and coordinator for the Peer Review Mentoring Committees.