Science professor passes million-dollar milestone with latest grant

Professor Jim Riggs has received grant awards totaling $1.3 million while teaching at Rider
Thursday, February 27, 2014

Professor Jim Riggs vaulted over a milestone this month when he received a grant from the National Institutes of Health, bringing his total grant awards while teaching at Rider University to $1.3 million. Topping a million dollars in grant money is an "uncommon" achievement, according to Michael Rutkowski, the University's grants manager. 

“Research is not cheap,” says Riggs, a professor of immunology who has taught at Rider since 1991. “If I don’t have the grant support, I can’t answer the questions the way I need to and I won’t have the opportunity to train students to make them competitive in their post-baccalaureate endeavors.” 

The newest $364,593 grant nearly doubles Riggs’ previous largest grant of about $190,000. It will fund research through January 2017 that tests how the biologic drug EPO — a synthetic version of the hormone erythropoietin — affects the immune system of cancer patients. Doctors often prescribe EPO to treat anemia, which can be a side effect of conventional chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but the drug has been found to accelerate cancer relapse in some patients who receive it. 

Riggs’ research could eventually inform strategies designed to intervene in anemia and cancer treatment. Students, though, will receive the most immediate benefit from the grant, Riggs says, because such funding provides them the opportunity to receive practical and relevant experience in the lab. “It’s great for the continued training of our students, and Rider has a really good record of that, which gives them a leg up when they leave us,” he says. 

His previous grants have “set the table” to study EPO, Riggs says. Michelle Orlowski ’11 worked in his lab as an undergraduate with NIH support, assisting him in researching how certain cells regulate immunity in cancer. She helped steer the direction of the research toward EPO — a “logical progression” from the previous research, Riggs says. Also aided by an Undergraduate Research Scholar Award, a research scholarship that funds student work, Orlowski worked with Riggs to reproduce the tumor microenvironment in vitro to study how EPO operates. 

Now at Princeton University, Orlowski is working to develop early detection for pancreatic cancer with collaborators at the Mayo Clinic. “The juice is seeing our students go somewhere,” Riggs says. “Our department does a great job of placing our students.” 

The latest grant is the culmination of about seven years worth of research and two years of writing, says Riggs, who took a sabbatical in 2011 to prepare the proposal. That time away from teaching afforded him the opportunity to read deeply into the literature surrounding EPO, connect with his network of scientists and researchers, and review other grant proposals — all of which contributed to his ability to stay current on his research. 

“Staying aware of advances in biomedical research is vital for my research to be contemporary and competitive," Riggs says. "Rider has allowed me to do that. Our success with our research is a reflection of what Rider has provided. And it's important to realize that staying on top of my research helps inform my teaching.”

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Michelle Orlowski ’11 worked in Professor Jim Rigg's lab with NIH support.