The National Institutes of Health awarded $23 million to a Virginia partnership that includes the state’s top rival universities to jointly advance the pace of bringing medical discoveries out of the lab and into physician practices.
The NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award requires researchers and clinicians at academic health centers to collaborate rather than compete, and will open up possibilities for Virginia scientists and physicians to participate in national projects at top institutions.
“It’s really an elite program of the most elite translational research programs across the country. So we are absolutely thrilled to be identified as one of those sites,” said Dr. Karen Johnston, a UVa neurologist who is one of the principal investigators. “One of the things that makes our program so exciting is that it’s such a collaborative effort across the state.”
Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia teamed up with Carilion Clinic and Inova Health System to form the integrated Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia, or iTHRIV, which was awarded a five-year grant. The Center for Open Science and UVa’s licensing and venture groups are also part of iTHRIV.
Michael Friedlander, Tech’s vice president for health sciences, said the NIH began giving this type of grant to well-established academic health centers about a decade ago in order to shorten the time from making discoveries in research labs to treating patients.
The grant requires that young medical doctors be trained in scientific research and that new scientists be cross-trained in translating lab work into clinics. The partners will also share their data and that of patients, and develop tools to better interpret and use data. And they will engage patients and the communities to improve individual and population health.
Friedlander said Tech and UVa began a few years ago exploring a partnership with Inova and Carilion in order to win a grant that they otherwise would not have earned.
“These are very prestigious awards. It’s really a big deal to get one of these,” he said. “It’s kind of approval that you have hit the big leagues in the academic health centers for clinical and translational research. You are at the table with the top leadership in the country.”
UVa failed in past attempts to become part of the program as a single institution. Johnston said the collaboration makes it exciting.
“We have all these different perspectives, different expertise, public, private, academic, nonacademic teams all coming together, and we think it’s going to give us the most opportunity to develop innovative research programs and translate that to improving the health of the commonwealth,” she said.
Friedlander said unlike other NIH grants that are awarded to individual researchers, this grant goes to the institutions with NIH as a partner, and provides the framework to share information and best practices with leadership the other 60 academic health centers that have similar grants.
For Virginia Tech and Carilion, which formed an academic health center just a decade ago, gaining access to these types of partners is huge, he said.
“It really says a lot about how far we’ve come in a short time. It’s important for us for the path forward for this academic health center,” Friedlander said.
The grant is not disease-specific.
“These resources will go toward all types of diseases and conditions that are ready to translate into improving the human health condition,” Johnston said. “One of the benefits of being part of this network is it opens the door for us to have additional opportunities to participate in research program that are only open to the folks who are in the network.”
She said they are hoping to join in projects around rural and community health and the opioid crisis.
The collaboration will give the partners access to patient data that is stripped of identifying information from Carilion, Inova and UVa.
“When you add all of us together across the state we cover about 60 percent of the lives in Virginia. So we are thinking there are probably clues as to how to maximize the health of the people in Virginia that we would be able to identify if we all put our heads together and work together,” Johnston said.
The Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center includes Carilion Clinic, Tech’s VTC School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. The research institute is undergoing an expansion and will bring to Roanoke the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine's oncology clinical trials.
One of the steps to bringing promising discoveries out of the lab and to humans is through clinical trials on animals with similar diseases. For example, some breeds of dogs develop similar types of deadly brain tumors as humans, glioblastomas, that are studied at the research institute.
As trials move forward, they expand from single sites to multiple sites, and one of the NIH grant's goals is to remove roadblocks in conducting multi-site trials by having the academic centers devise new ways of collaborating.