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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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WSU Spokane expands cancer, sleep research

Cancer researcher Bin Shan is among a new group of faculty members setting up labs at Washington State University Spokane that is expected to bolster existing cancer and sleep research cores. (Colin Mulvany)
Cancer researcher Bin Shan is among a new group of faculty members setting up labs at Washington State University Spokane that is expected to bolster existing cancer and sleep research cores. (Colin Mulvany) Buy this photo

Two new researchers in Spokane could help explain how cancer cells grow.

Following Washington State University’s approval of a new College of Medical Sciences on the Spokane campus in May, WSU has hired five faculty members to bolster its cancer and sleep research cores.

The two cancer researchers, Bin Shan and Weimin Li, are assembling their research laboratories on the Spokane campus.

“The opportunity here is amazing,” Shan said.

He said WSU’s commitment to research growth is rare, especially in a time when universities nationwide are cutting research funding.

Shan is using his laboratory to grow cancer cells in a petri dish and use it as a model to understand how they grow, doing his best to simulate a natural environment for the cells. He said his research looks at how a stiff tumor environment promotes cancer, particularly lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis.

After attending medical school in China, where he was raised, he earned his doctorate from Tulane University and worked his way to becoming a junior faculty member at the school.

Li, the other cancer researcher, is setting up his lab in the new Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences Building. Li’s research focuses on the unique factors that cause tumor cells to grow, and he will run experiments on mice in his lab.

“We want to mimic the cancer cell growth environment in animals,” Li said.

He said the new lab and environment at WSU Spokane is an optimal location for his research, with opportunities to interact with a growing number of people with similar interests at the new college.

Nationally, funding for research in universities has dropped in recent years.

Higher education funding for research and development in 2012, the last fiscal year with available statistics, declined by 1.1 percent nationally when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Science Foundation. The dip follows an average 5 percent increase in funding from 2009-11, and represents the first constant-dollar decline since 1974.

Yet the national decline in research funding has not fazed the research development of the WSU Spokane campus. The completion this year of a Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences Building quadrupled the campus’s research space, said Ken Roberts, acting dean of the College of Medical Sciences.

“That’s more of a statement about how little we had before,” Roberts said.

He said the new building was a big step forward, but they still have a long way to go if they want to rival the research space in Pullman. They are still working out the best way to use the building, he said.

The other three researchers who have yet to move to the Spokane campus include Jingru Sun, from Duke University, who researches the interaction between the nervous system and the innate immune system; and Marcos Frank and Lucia Peixoto, both from the University of Pennsylvania. Frank studies why animals sleep and examines the role of sleep in the development of central visual pathways. Peixoto uses genomics and computational biology to study learning and memory and how it relates to areas such as autism.

Frank will arrive Sept. 1, and Peixoto will get here next spring.

The college also added nine other faculty members for the new Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, bringing the number of full-time faculty members in Medical Sciences to more than 25.

“We are happy to have these talented scientists joining our faculty,” Roberts said. “Each will enrich the academic environment in our college and bring unique opportunities for students who are training here.”

Roberts said these faculty additions have been made possible because the school has been able to beef up its research core facilities the last couple of years.

“We’re becoming very well-equipped for the kind of research we’re investing in,” he said.

At a time many institutions are struggling to fund research programs, Roberts said WSU is excited to be investing in Spokane.

“It speaks to the fact that we’re strong enough to be attractive to faculty like this,” he said.

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