And the winner is: Rhode Island and its innovation ecosystem
First two collaborative research pilot projects are announced under $19.5 million Institutional Development Award
While there is some recognition that small businesses drive the state’s economy and are responsible for the majority of job creation, there is still a tendency to oversell the potential of using tax incentives to lure divisions of big corporations to come to Rhode Island as a profitable strategy.
The health industry is still the state’s largest private employer, yet the potential for that sector to be gutted by the repeal, replace and repair efforts by the Republican Congress have not yet resulted in an action plan in response to the potential risk. Neither has there been a good analysis of the potential impacts it will have on the biomedical research sector here in Rhode Island. The question is: when will the research community speak up?
PROVIDENCE – If there were an awards ceremony for the best research initiative launched in 2016 by a collaborative research program in Rhode Island, the winner would no doubt be the Advance Clinical and Translational Research program, known as Advance-CTR.
Last week, the first two pilot project research grants under the program were announced as part of the five-year, $19.5 million Institutional Development Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
Another four pilot project research grants will be announced later this year, according to Gabrielle Stranieri, communications manager for the program. Each pilot program will receive $75,000 in funding for one year, with an option to renew for a second year.
Another four pilot project research grants will be announced next year, with a total of 22 pilot project grants planned to given out over the course of the Advance- CTR program, according to Stranieri.
Judging from the initial response to first round of pilot project grants, the selection process will be very competitive: there were 54 letters of interest for just the first round, according to Dr. Jim Padbury, chief of Pediatrics at Women & Infants Hospital and the William and Mary Oh/William and Elsa Zopfi Professor of Pediatrics for Perinatal Research at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University.
The large amount of interest in the program, Padbury said, reflected what he called “an unmet need for clinical translational research” in Rhode Island.
“You can use the words enthusiasm, opportunity, resources and infrastructure to describe the program,” Padbury told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview. Padbury said he was serving in the role of the principal investigator for the Advance-CTR program.
The goal, Padbury continued, is to promote translational research in Rhode Island on a statewide basis. “We want to be a hub for information, support and collaboration.” Toward that end, the program has built an initial listserv with more than 2,300 email addresses.
By creating the infrastructure for collaborative translational research in Rhode Island, Padbury said it was very much about the creation of a virtuous circle in research, from the laboratory bench to the bedside, creating new kinds of medical innovation that would lead to entrepreneurial opportunities and new companies, flowing back to more collaborative research.
His colleague and collaborator in coordinating the Advance-CTR program, Edward Hawrot, the Alva O. Way University Professor of Medical Science, Associate Dean of Biology and Professor of Medical Science at Brown University, said that the new grant program placed the emphasis on building a statewide research infrastructure.
The standard NIH grant mechanisms, Hawrot explained, “are really devoted to developing new knowledge. There are very, very limited resources in general [to support] infrastructure that enables a lot of research [to be conducted].”
When there are these less frequent opportunities to build infrastructure, Hawrot continued, “We have to grab onto them and pursue them. It provides a tremendous return on investment.”
One of the key words in the request for proposals that accompanied the Advance-CTR award mechanism was “infrastructure” – the intent was to provide resources for those states such as Rhode Island that were relatively under-resourced, according to Hawrot.
“For me, it was a very different kind of grant to write,” Hawrot told ConvergenceRI. “It was not about a scientific question or a hypothesis that you wanted to test. It was about making the argument as to why NIH should be investing in Rhode Island and our research institutions, to convince them that this was a good use of NIH dollars.”
What was the convincing argument why NIH should invest in Rhode Island? ConvergenceRI asked.
“We argued that we had a lot of the important pieces in place,” Hawrot said. “We had top-notch researchers at institutions – at Brown, at URI, and at the hospitals. But, for the most part, there wasn’t a lot of communication between them.”
One of the beneficial parts of writing the grant was to identify the intrinsic barriers to more collaboration, to find out what’s holding such collaboration back, according to Hawrot.
The Advance-CTR program, Hawrot said, “is all about connecting the dots.”
Investing in biomedical research infrastructure
The purpose of the Advance-CTR grant is provide infrastructure and support to catalyze biomedical research and clinical trials that will hopefully translate the benefits of basic research to patient care in Rhode Island, according the news release accompanying the announcement of the pilot projects.
The collaborative partners in the statewide Advance-CTR program include: Care New England, Lifespan, the Providence VA Medical Centers, the University of Rhode Island, Brown University, and the Rhode Island Quality Institute.
First two translational research pilot projects
To be chosen as a translational research pilot project, the research must seek to bring together investigators from different disciplines, matching up younger research scientists with mentors.
• In one of the first two pilot projects, two researchers, Richard Clements, Ph.D., affiliated with the Ocean State Research Institute at the Providence VA Medical Center, the Vascular Research Lab at Rhode Island Hospital, and the Cardiovascular Research Center at Brown University, and Dr. Neel Sodha, assistant professor of surgery at the Warren Alpert Medical School, under the mentorship from Dr. Frank Selke and Dr. Samuel Dudley, physicians at Rhode Island Hospital and the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, will explore why people with diabetes often have vasculature that does not dilate to accommodate increased blood flow. The researchers will then test different potential interventions in model mice.
For those research wonks, the technical title of the research is: “Mitochondrial ROS-Dependent Modification of RyR/BKCa Signaliing Axis in Diabetes.” The investigator is Dmitry Terentyev, affiliated with Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University.
• In the second pilot project, researchers Chathuraka Jayasuriya, assistant professor, and Dr. Brett Owens, professor, in orthopedics at the Alpert Medical School, will study the potential for stem cells to help heal damage of the meniscus cartilage in the knee. The researchers will be mentored by Rhode Island Hospital physicians Dr. Michael Ehrlich and Dr. Qian Chen.
Once again, for those research wonks, the technical title of the research is: “Meniscal Repair Using a Novel Subset of Cartilage-Derived Human Stem Cells.”
Connecting the dots
On March 14, the annual statewide IDeA conference will be held at the Warren Alpert Medical School, bringing together researchers who are part of the COBRE research programs in Rhode Island as well as the Advance-CTR program. Both Padbury and Hawrot saw the gathering as an opportunity to learn about ongoing research and make connections, sharing information and having conversations across numerous disciplines and platforms.
Another program that Rhode Island will be participating in is a program called I-Trep, which seeks to provide education and skill development in entrepreneurship in order to facilitate the generation and competitiveness of biomedical businesses and to foster economic growth in IDeA states.
The lead institution for the I-Trep program is the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. The other states participating besides Rhode Island and Vermont are Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire and Puerto Rico.