The $20 million in federal research funding the University of Kentucky recently received sent shockwaves through UK and Lexington, but the impact could be felt in other nearby states.
Through the National Institutes of Health program that awarded the funds, UK will partner with Marshall University in West Virginia and others and will focus, in part, on health issues that disproportionally affect residents in Kentucky and other Appalachian states, like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
“It would be fantastic that with the funding from this award and with all the opportunities that come with it, that some of the really, really difficult health problems that affect the people in Appalachia could be addressed,” said Dr. Barbara Alving, director of the National Center for Research Resources with the National Institutes of Health.
UK’s ability to collaborate was one of the reasons it was chosen by the National Institutes of Health to get the funding, she said.
“It has the team in place, the true collaborations that could get this done,” Alving said. “UK is certainly very well positioned to move its research … into the communities of Appalachia.”
UK officials announced June 14 that they had received the award, one of the school’s largest ever. The five-year funding was awarded through the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards program, which focuses on moving research discoveries to patients more quickly. It went to UK’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science.
As part of the program, institutions are encouraged to collaborate through a consortium with other schools that have received the awards.
Marshall University received a subcontract of up to $750,000 over five years as part of the recent funding, and Marshall and UK will partner on research, clinical trials and training.
UK also developed the Appalachian Translational Research Network in collaboration with Marshall. While groundwork for this started before UK received its federal funding, it likely would not have been possible without the award, said Dr. Philip Kern, associate provost for clinical and translational science at UK.
UK and Marshall will also partner with Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati, which have received Clinical and Translational Science Award funding. These relationships further spread the reach of how far advances made because of this funding can go, Kern said.
The award’s “main goal is to create an environment where people can exercise their creative juices,” he said. “It will be sort of a catalyst. … There’s a lot of potential there.”
How it works
Within a month or two, residents in Appalachia can expect to see researchers signing up participants for clinical trials, funded and encouraged as part of this award, said John Maher, Marshall’s vice president for research.
The award “is really focused on some of the greatest health disparities we face as a region,” he said.
But more than “some big ta-da” moment, involving a major breakthrough in fighting these diseases, Alving said the biggest and quickest impact this program will have will be in more effective research being done faster and more efficiently.
These programs will create the infrastructure that could lead to major discoveries in a decade or so, Kern said. He likened it to the research about tobacco that over several years led to major decreases in smoking.
“One cannot expect that we will come up with a cure for lung cancer and obesity tomorrow. Four million dollars a year is nice, but compared to the social and economic problems and the long-standing health problems in the region, it’s a drop in the bucket,” he said. “But 10 to 15 years from now, you’ll see tangible benefits.”
The partnering aspect helps bring in more investigators and participants, Maher said. Marshall and UK’s institutional review boards, which OK trials, recognize each other’s authority, which means each school doesn’t have to go through the process separately to gain approval for work on the same project.
“We’re trying to eliminate duplication in that process,” he said. “You have to get a bunch of institutions together to do these things, and this is making it streamlined.”
Many researchers have “grown up in a competition mode,” taught to keep research to themselves since everyone is “competing for the same pot of funding,” Alving said.
“But it’s amazing what money can do and not even large amounts of money,” in terms of encouraging pilot projects, collaboration and offering research support, she said.
The translational science awards began in 2006 and include 60 institutions, extending the consortium to 30 states and Washington, D.C. Furthermore, researchers have not only partnered with other institutions but with nonprofits, private businesses and other colleges outside of medicine, such as business.
The University of Cincinnati’s program has helped about 400 researchers since it received its award in 2009 and has been able to develop more projects and provide more study support to researchers than they would otherwise have been able, said Dr. James Heubi, associate dean for clinical and translational research and associate chair for clinical research of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati.
One of its current studies is looking at diabetes and better ways to control it, he said.
The funding has not yet led to a school-wide embrace of more collaboration, but it has encouraged researchers to think in that direction.
“It’s pretty much recognized that an individual researcher can’t do all this himself,” Heubi said. “You need collaborators … in different disciplines.
“And if we can focus on some problems, we can make some dents.”
Work in Appalachia
Along with more clinical trials, researchers are asking communities to take a larger role in clinical research, Alving said.
“Part of this depends on going to the communities and reaching out to them and finding out what the issues are,” Heubi added.
UK’s researchers, though the Appalachian Translational Research Network, have already begun approaching communities, with one focus on reaching people through churches and other faith-based organizations, Kern said.
Getting community buy-in is key, and a lot of the work will involve “boots on the ground” and advocating preventative health measures.
“One thing we want to avoid is looking like we’re a bunch of pointy-headed academics sitting in our ivory tower in Lexington,” Kern said. “Telling people in rural communities about how to live their lives is not a very effective way to deliver health care or to get people involved in research.”
The group also hopes to reach people through each school’s network of rural health centers and by leveraging each institution’s strengths, he said. For UK, this would be its pharmaceutical sciences and biomedical engineering, while Marshall and UC have been focused on cancer and pediatrics, respectively.
The network also includes Morehead State University, Pikeville College School of Osteopathic Medicine, the Appalachia Community Cancer Network and the UK Centers for Rural Health.
“This NIH designation and funding should greatly enhance the University of Kentucky’s ability to conduct research in Appalachian communities and enhance the health of its people,” said Louis Segesvary, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership that works toward sustainable communities in Appalachia.
Still, the Appalachian network is one of many projects UK hopes to fund with the recent award. UK’s translational research center is a collaboration of more than 200 individuals from 12 UK colleges, and among many programs, it supports the Clinical Research Development and Operations Center in the UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital, which is where patients participate in research studies in out-patient and in-patient settings.
While Kern couldn’t say how much of the award the Appalachian network will receive, he did say “it’s small but essential, and it’s critical that we network.”
And even if the work isn’t originally focused on a particular place to begin with, the advancements made could eventually reach those residents.
“I think as we learn more about ways to manage some of these health care problems, populations like those in Appalachia are all going to benefit,” Heubi said.
For more information about the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science and its clinical trials, visit its website.
Photo from UK PR.