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Published in CenterView on October 21, 2013

All signs point to rejuvenated economic outlook for UMMC’s discovery enterprise

By Jack Mazurak

Researchers at UMMC brought in $44.5 million in grant funding in fiscal year 2013 – down from the $60.2 million received the year before – but several factors point to enterprise growth in the years ahead.

The nearly $45 million in extramural funding – a term encompassing grants from external organizations for research or other projects – represents a stout block of support. Especially at a time with less funding available from the National Institutes of Health, a major source for research grants for academic medical centers nationwide, and since Congress stomped the brakes on earmarks in 2011.

Dr. Richard Summers, associate vice chancellor for research, said despite a tough funding climate, better times await.

In fiscal year 2013, UMMC researchers submitted more grant applications than ever, planting seeds for the coming months. And investigators sent them to a broader field of sources, meaning less reliance on the NIH.

Summers, who was appointed to the position in August, aims to broaden the pathway for UMMC technological innovations to get to market, increase the number of clinical trials at UMMC and increase the amount of translational research.

Moving new innovations – whether drugs, therapies, devices or technologies – from laboratories into clinical use improves human health and opens more avenues for funding, including industry partners and venture capital investors.

What’s all that money doing?
The $44.5 million that came from government, industry and non-profit sources funds a wide variety of health and science projects.

Dr. Jason Griggs, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Materials Science, received a grant in February from Ivoclar Vivadent, a developer of dental materials and processes based in Lichtenstein. The project investigates the correlation between the microstructure of denture teeth and their resistance to chipping.

In the Department of Pediatrics, Dr. Norma Ojeda, assistant professor of neonatology, investigates the mechanisms behind why many low-birth-weight babies are more prone to kidney injury due to reduction in blood flow.

The American Society of Nephrology selected her project for a two-year career-development grant in July. The research is particularly important in Mississippi, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of premature and low-birth-weight births, Ojeda said.

Cancer researcher Dr. Luis Martinez, an associate professor of biochemistry, received a National Institutes of Health grant in May to investigate how the activities of normally tumor-suppressing protein p53 go awry and produce mutant varieties that encourage cancer through a DNA-transcription-dependent process. The five-year grant is the NIH’s most common type, an R01, given to established, independent researchers who investigate their own discrete projects.

In the School of Nursing, Dr. Lisa Haynie received a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant in February for the Mercy Delta Express Program she directs. The 15-month grant funds operations at three clinics for children and teens in the state’s south Delta region. In addition, the clinics serve as interprofessional training sites for UMMC students. The clinics are located in a head start program, elementary school and middle school.

Directions for research
NIH grants to individual researchers tapered drastically in the past five years.

During a visit to UMMC last October, Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director, said he recognized the tight funding hurts researchers and institutions. He expressed concern about the situation.

“There are very few investments that get made by the U.S. government that have that kind of economic turnaround,” he said. “Let alone that this is our best hope for finding answers to medical problems.”

Summers said he senses the NIH and its parent organization, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, not only understand the problem, but actively seek to open the taps on funding.

“I think they’re recognizing the importance of increasing the funding levels,” he said. “We hope to see a change in the coming years.”

Responding to the decrease in federal funding, UMMC researchers are hunting down other sources, in addition to the usual NIH fare.

Figures from the Office of Research show an increase in grant applications to the NIH during the past three fiscal years – from 130 to 166. The state fiscal year runs July 1-June 30.

More importantly, researchers submitted more grant applications to government, private industry and non-profit funders overall. Total submissions grew from 282 in fiscal year 2011 to 317 the following year to 348 in fiscal year 2013.

Funding targets include the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Diabetes Association and dozens of private and public corporations.

Summers encourages it.

“To me, all the money is green as long as it’s contributing to the academic mission of the Medical Center,” he said.

Summers also wants to increase the number of clinical trials, carefully controlled research programs that test the efficacy and safety of new drugs and methods in groups of patients and volunteers.    

“One of my goals in this new role is to increase the number of phase 1 and phase 2 clinical trials,” he said. “We can’t compete with Duke and Mayo on the large phase 3 and 4 trials, but we can become specialists in organizing and conducting early stage clinical trials.”

A bright picture
The Office of Research checked in a handful of multimillion-dollar grant projects in July, August and September, just after fiscal year 2013 ended.

With the threat of a federal government shutdown looming, the National Institutes of Health OK’d an $11.4 million grant to Dr. John Hall, professor and chair of physiology, to fund metabolic and cardiorenal investigations – including in the Mississippi Center for Obesity Research, which Hall directs.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences awarded a $5.5 million Institutional Development Award Center of Biomedical Research Excellence grant to UMMC’s Center for Psychiatric Neuroscience, directed by Dr. Craig Stockmeier, professor of psychology.

And in August, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute approved a massive $21.5 million reauthorization of the Jackson Heart Study.

Those grants will boost the fiscal year 2014 extramural-funding total.

“Those are some huge projects moving us forward,” said Summers. “I think that overall we are doing very well with the size of our institution and our profile.”