Research

Investing in Discovery

By Charles Buchanan

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What if transferring diagnostic images between hospitals were as simple as e-mail? Two years ago, UAB neurosurgeon Barton Guthrie, M.D., and a team of specialists developed that idea into a secure Web portal called the Central Alabama Health Image Exchange (CAHIE), which links UAB Hospital with medical centers in Birmingham, Bessemer, Cullman, and Montgomery. Now a patient receiving a scan at one hospital doesn’t need a duplicate scan after being referred to another network facility; in an instant, a physician can access the highly detailed original scan online. Or a UAB specialist can consult with a referring physician before the patient arrives, both viewing the scan at the same time. It’s an innovation that could speed up treatment, improve safety, and save up to $45 million in health  care costs. 

It’s also a strategy that the School of Medicine intends to follow in research, capitalizing on the “what-if” ideas of UAB scientists. “We will invest in our researchers to accelerate the pace of discovery,” Watts says. “Then we will invest more to bring these advances to Alabama patients as quickly as possible.”

Setting Priorities

When the strategic planning process began in 2010, Watts asked faculty steering committees to identify UAB’s strengths—and the greatest growth opportunities. They chose six—cancer; cardiovascular biology and diseases; diabetes, obesity, and metabolism; immunology, autoimmunity, and transplantation; neuroscience; and infectious disease, global health, and vaccines—to serve as the pillars of UAB research. “These diseases are the biggest threats, but we also have a strong track record with them,” Watts says. “We have a chance to lead nationally and globally.” Six other “cross-cutting platforms”—imaging, genomics and proteomics, informatics, biorepositories, the Center for Clinical and Translational Science, and outcomes and health-care effectiveness research—will support the research pillars and all other UAB specialties. (Steering committee co-chairs describe the priorities and platforms.)

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“By focusing on these areas, we will attract faculty, students, patients, research funding, and community support that will help us fulfill our mission, raise UAB’s national profile, and benefit every research department in the school,” Watts says.

Meeting of the Minds

Each of the six pillars will host two major symposia a year, drawing experts from around the nation and world to present breakthrough research. "We want them to work alongside our own leaders and possibly establish collaborations. We want to expose our students to them," Watts explains. UAB and Birmingham can also shine. "We want the best people, many of whom have probably never been to Alabama, to learn about the innovative things we're accomplishing," he says.

The interdisciplinary approach that powers UAB’s comprehensive centers will be applied to all six pillars. Scientists and clinicians will “work together, meet together, plan together, and recruit together,” Watts says. Some collaborations will link medical faculty with colleagues in other UAB schools, including engineering, nursing, and public health.

Faculty Focus

“One person can only do so much,” Watts says. “To compete for large, multimillion-dollar research grants, we need a team of the best and brightest to build a critical mass.” UAB aims to recruit at least 30 to 50 additional National Institutes of Health-funded investigators over five years—with an additional 50 to come afterward. These scientists will have specialized expertise to help bridge gaps between specialties, Watts says, and they will also bring new perspectives and ideas that invigorate the entire research team.

For current faculty, Congressional budget cuts and the end of stimulus funding have created the tightest, most competitive environment for NIH funding in history. “We want to help them be as successful as possible,” Watts explains. “If they’ve got one grant, how can they get two? If they’ve got two, how can they get three?” A new multimillion-dollar “bridge-funding” program will help investigators needing extensions to continue their research while they pursue additional federal grants.

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Seeding New Discoveries

Additional support comes from investments designed to accelerate research and drug discovery in each priority area. Steering committees are identifying the most promising—and most innovative—projects and helping to move them forward with these funds, priming them to earn NIH grants and proceed through the scientific pipeline. The funds also provide resources for senior faculty who want to explore new avenues of research as well as teams of investigators preparing to pursue large NIH grants.

At the same time, UAB is building a phase 1 clinical trials unit, centralizing studies previously conducted at other institutions and providing another link in the chain from basic science discoveries to experimental therapeutics. “We want to offer our patients access to the best global research and the most exciting treatment options,” Watts says. “That’s what makes us unique.”

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UAB has already set up partnerships to ease the development of those new treatments. The Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance (ADDA), a collaboration between the School of Medicine and Birmingham’s Southern Research Institute, offers funding and resources for screening and testing potential therapeutics.

Economic Development

New Jobs, New Revenue

The strategic roadmap will have a major economic impact on the community and state. Hiring 50 additional research faculty will generate

• more than 300 high-tech jobs—a $20 million estimated annual payroll;

• more than $30 million of direct additional NIH funding, resulting in a $75 million indirect economic impact; and

• the need for a new research building—a $100 million construction project.

Estimates provided by UAB Office of the Vice President of Research and Economic Development

Biomedical discoveries have the potential to produce more than new drugs, Watts notes. “In surgery, for example, we could develop a new instrument, a new suture, or a new technique, and we want to invest in those opportunities as well.”

In essence, the School of Medicine will take on the role of venture capitalist, working with the UAB Research Foundation and its new entrepreneur-in-residence, as well as the Birmingham Business Alliance’s vice president for innovation and technology, to identify research that could form the basis of new high-tech spin-off companies. “We want to develop this revenue stream so that we can reinvest in our mission,” Watts says, “but more important, we want to keep these companies in Birmingham and Alabama.”

As for Guthrie’s health image exchange, additional investment could link it with every hospital in Alabama—and turn his “what-if” idea into a unique conduit for laboratory data and other health records. “No other state in the country has this yet,” Watts says. “We have made it better and faster than I could have dreamed.

“This is exactly the type of work that we need to be doing,” he adds. “We can change the future of medicine.”