Spring 2014
Expanding Regional Capacity for Translational Research

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Kenneth Izuora and Robert Langer

Endocrinologist Kenneth Izuora, M.D., discusses clinical translational research opportunities through the CTR-IN grant with Robert Langer, M.D. Photo by Edgar Antonio Núñez

Collaboration begins among 13 western universities

By Matt Lush

Last year, the University of Nevada School of Medicine became a partner, with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as the primary grantee institution, in a five-year, $20.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health designed to accelerate and expand the capacity of the region to conduct clinical and bench-to-bedside research.

The Clinical Translational Research Infrastructure Network (CTR-IN) will further this goal across a partnership including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; University of Nevada, Reno (through the University of Nevada School of Medicine); University of Alaska, Anchorage; University of Alaska, Fairbanks; University of Hawaii; Boise State University; Idaho State University; University of Idaho; Montana State University; University of Montana; University of New Mexico; New Mexico State University; and the University of Wyoming.

Funding for this grant comes from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences Institutional Development Award Program to enhance the caliber of scientific faculty at research institutions in historically underfunded states, like Nevada, thereby attracting more promising faculty and students.

The CTR-IN, launched last September with a $4.3 million budget to support research in an abbreviated first year ending in June 2014, has a mission “to accelerate the development of capacity and implement the necessary institutional culture changes to increase the quantity, quality and number of successful NIH grant applications in clinical and translational research in the seven Mountain West states, thereby accelerating scientific discovery to improve health in the region.”

The CTR-IN addresses regional health concerns including access to care, cultural issues as they relate to health, cancer, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular and infectious diseases. Much of the budget is devoted to supporting pilot grants.

“The main purpose of the pilot grant program is to get investigators to a point where they have collected enough preliminary data that they can put together a more comprehensive proposal that can go directly to the NIH or to another major funding agency,” said program director Robert Langer, M.D., a physician and epidemiologist with more than 25 years of related research experience, who holds faculty appointments at the School of Medicine and UNLV’s School of Allied Health Sciences. Langer also serves as the associate dean for clinical and translational research at the medical school thereby linking Nevada’s biomedical research institutions.

“And we now have the means to address the unique health needs of people in the Mountain West, which covers one third of the U.S., and faces tremendous challenges in health care delivery,” he added.

Langer said that there has been success in building basic science research, but until now the School of Medicine and other institutions have had a tough time building traction for research that helps everyday people.

Though most CTR-IN universities have successful programs in basic science, they lack capacity in bench-to-bedside research—what the NIH refers to as translational research—and have limited resources to support faculty conducting this type of work. Only three partner institutions participating in the CTR-IN have medical schools and the two outside of Nevada—the Universities of New Mexico and Hawaii—have NIH-funded research centers to provide additional support to CTR-IN partner institutions.

“One of the most remarkable things is the variety of research and investigators that have been funded,” Langer said.

“The span from the translational to the real, applied clinical public health is remarkable and speaks volumes about what’s happening in our region.”

Examples of the pilot grant research topics include:

  • Investigators in Alaska are looking at a plant called Devil’s Club—a traditional Native American remedy for pain—and the potential for it to treat rheumatoid arthritis
  • University of Nevada, Reno investigators are looking at the impact of periodontal disease on outcomes in diabetes
  • Researchers at the University of Montana are using cognitive complexity research to increase hardened smokers’ attempts to quit.

In addition to pilot grants, the CTR-IN also offers support for researchers to develop collaborations and learn new skills by spending time at a mentor’s lab at a partner institution.

Langer added that the CTR-IN also provides resources to foster the development of emerging researchers including online educational offerings, help in linking with mentors and help with study design and biostatistics. In fact, each of the 13 partner institutions has a one-day-a-week biostatistician devoted to working with faculty who want to conduct projects through the CTR-IN.

James Kenyon, Ph.D., senior associate dean for research, is the CTR-IN project coordinator at the School of Medicine.

“What we have seen so far is enormous interest in regional researchers who are writing and submitting Clinical and Translational Pilot grants. We collected more than 50 proposals within a month of our start date. It has also been exciting to see how the CTR-IN team has come together to build the project in spite of being spread out across the region,” he said.

“We now have 20 projects dealing with a range of regional health issues including Native American health and rural health disparities,” Kenyon said.

Partner institutions share resources and expertise to centralize services for researchers. This improves research capacity at the institutional level and increases the likelihood for future independent NIH-funded research studies.

UNLV administers the grant through its School of Allied Health Sciences while the member institutions will provide administrative, personnel and infrastructure support.