Discovery enterprise funding scales extraordinary heights
By Jack Mazurak
Research funding at the University of Mississippi Medical Center shot up 90 percent in the past three fiscal years, a hard-figures representation of UMMC's commitment to understanding human health and addressing the diseases that so plague Mississippi.
New hires, grants and incentive programs all helped funding jump from $39.7 million in fiscal 2008 to 60.9 million in fiscal 2009. That rose to nearly $75.7 million in fiscal 2010.
"We have tremendous opportunities to grow - many of which don't exist elsewhere in the country," said Dr. John Hall, associate vice chancellor for research. "With its poor health, Mississippi is a living laboratory. So we should be leaders in investigating the causes of cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases that disproportionately affect Mississippians."
The dramatic climb in funding, mainly in grants from the National Institutes of Health, boosts the Jackson and statewide economy. Money coming into the state for research turns over locally five-to-eight times, economists estimate. That creates jobs, nourishes businesses, adds to tax rolls and helps sell homes, furniture and vehicles.
Higher funding, more accomplished researchers and more studies published also will help the Medical Center distinguish itself among other institutions. Hall said the 2004 Strategic Plan for Research laid plans to build up selected areas: cancer, obesity and metabolic diseases, cardiovascular diseases, neurosciences and neurodegenerative diseases.
"That's not to say we don't want to see growth in other areas. But by focusing our efforts, we can be great, known worldwide, in several key areas, rather than mediocre in a bunch," he said.
"Additionally, we've taken on health-care disparities research. We obviously have a problem with health-care delivery in this state and it needs to be addressed."
Percentage-wise, funding from all sources - federal, foundations and professional organizations, business and industry, and state agencies - rose 53 percent between fiscal 2008 and 2009, then another 24 percent between fiscal 2009 and 2010. The state's fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30.
Hall said an influx of new, funded faculty along with current faculty receiving new grants helped boost the figures.
"This can happen because we've made expansion of research a major priority," he said. "The commitment of the institution to grow the research mission and the expansion of the campus infrastructure set the stage for this."
Beyond faculty expansion, a new research building and resources added to the Office of Research were key.
"Credit goes to Dr. Dan Jones and Dr. James Keeton for making this mission a priority. Without their support this was not going to happen and wouldn't continue to happen," Hall said.
Funded investigators recruited in the last few years include Dr. Richard J. Roman, professor and chair of pharmacology and toxicology. He arrived in fall 2009 with a prestigious MERIT award to extend a grant he's held for 26 years.
MERIT awards are given by the NIH to only a small number of accomplished, productive and innovative researchers. This spring, Roman received $2.2 million in a second round of funding on the grant, which will last five years. Roman investigates diseases such as diabetes, stroke and hypertension and searches for new drugs that could cure them. He's also been recruiting investigators to his department.
Dr. Lucio Miele moved from Loyola University of Chicago in summer 2009 to head UMMC's Cancer Institute. A highly accomplished researcher and physician, he is funded with two NIH grants. His studies focus on developing new targeted treatments for endocrine-resistant and triple-negative breast cancers. He, too, has been busy recruiting, adding faculty, donations and equipment to the center.
Well-established researchers also play an important role. In the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Dr. Graznya Rajkowska investigates cellular and molecular changes in the brains of subjects diagnosed with depression. She currently holds three NIH grants and boasts a long record of grants received and work published.
Dr. Drazen Raucher, professor of biochemistry, is developing a drug-delivery system that targets cancerous tumors. His innovative research, funded by two NIH grants, currently focuses on brain and pancreatic tumors and could lead to less-invasive treatments for cancer.
Dr. Wu Zhou, professor of otolaryngology and communicative sciences, studies the complex mechanical, nerve and brain functions that interact to allow the eye to maintain focus despite movement of the head and body. A 17-year member of the UMMC faculty, Zhou is funded by the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Dr. Barbara Alexander, associate professor of physiology and biophysics, holds two grants from the NIH. One is to investigate the effects of low birth weight on later cardiovascular risk. Another grant provides support for summer undergraduate research, thus giving undergraduate students an opportunity to work in science and introduce them to graduate programs at the Medical Center.
Incentive programs encourage department chairs to hire funded researchers and keep faculty who receive grants. Many grant-giving organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health, pay indirect costs as well as the direct costs of research.
Under a program introduced in the Office of Research 2004 strategic plan, departments hiring newly funded faculty members keep 100 percent of the researchers' indirect grant funding for three years. Under a similar program, departments receive 20 percent of the indirect funding of new grants won by current faculty. The purpose of returning some of the indirect costs to the departments is to help them build infrastructure needed for expansion of their research programs. As well, researchers get rewarded for productivity.
"That system puts more money into the hands of department chairs to purchase equipment. Because it can be very expensive, they might not have been able to otherwise," Hall said.
More emphasis on core facilities, which group together like machinery and technical services, have helped investigators from all disciplines with access to cutting-edge equipment, skills and ideas.
"Those provide the research infrastructure that allows us to be more productive," Hall said. Core facilities also can earn income by contracting services to outside institutions.
Hall said he expects continued growth in funding, faculty and publications. A new effort to build the Medical Center's clinical trials, translational research and population studies will join ongoing focus on building basic science research.
"It's feasible for us to double our research funding here in the next five years," he said. "Some may say that's a high goal, but it's not unrealistic.
"Better to set our goals high and stretch ourselves than to set them lower and achieve them every time."