The University of Rochester Medical Center has been awarded another $24.3 million from the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health to continue its efforts to turn scientific discoveries into health benefits faster. This new award brings URMC’s total funding from NCATS to $132 million, dating back to 2006 when it became one of the first 12 institutions in the nation to receive one of these awards.
“The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the clear and urgent need for biomedical research – especially translational research,” said University of Rochester President Sarah Mangelsdorf. “As one of the nation’s leading research universities, we are devoted to advancing scientific understanding and promoting health and this award will help us continue those efforts.”
The award continues funding for the University of Rochester Clinical and Translational Science Institute (UR CTSI), which provides funding, training and resources to help researchers rapidly translate discoveries into therapies. The UR CTSI was one of the first institutions in the nation to be accepted into the Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program, which is the largest single grant program at the NIH. As a testament to its leadership in translational science, the UR CTSI was also selected as the coordinating center for the CTSA Program in 2017.
“The UR CTSI has been a leader in translational science since its inception 14 years ago,” said URMC CEO Mark Taubman, M.D. “In those years, the institute has brought nearly $132 million to the university, which it used to build a research infrastructure that is helping our researchers move quickly at a time when the entire world is experiencing a shared crisis and desperately awaiting solutions.”
The development of the UR CTSI was also the catalyst that led to the construction of the Saunders Research Building, which was completed in 2011 with $50 million in New York State funding. The 200,000-square-foot space was built to provide a home for clinical and translational research. The building was named in recognition of E. Phillip Saunders, whose long-standing commitment to medical research at URMC and generous $10 million gift to the UR CTSI has been instrumental in fostering muscular dystrophy, cancer, and translational biomedical research.
Though the UR CTSI grant proposal was written in the summer of 2019, its central theme, “research without walls” is eerily prescient for the current world of virtual work. With the new grant, the UR CTSI will move beyond the physical and virtual confines of institutions to help researchers conduct studies remotely, integrate research with clinical practice and break down barriers to diversify our research workforce.
“Long before COVID-19 began spreading around the globe, the UR CTSI was working to address critical issues that slow or impede research,” said Nancy Bennett, M.D., co-director of the UR CTSI and director of the Center for Community Health & Prevention at URMC. “The current crisis highlights just how amazing and important the work of our faculty, students and staff is.”
Bringing research to the community
Before a global pandemic forced the world to stay home, the UR CTSI was working on ways to bring research to the community and cut travel and parking out of the equation. To help more people – and a more diverse set of people – participate in health research, the UR CTSI plans to improve the university’s ability to conduct research remotely (over the phone or computer) and to build a research bus that can bring the clinic to participants.
“These remote research efforts are just a few of the ways we hope to ensure that our studies reflect the diversity of our communities,” said Martin Zand, M.D., Ph.D., UR CTSI co-director and senior associate dean for Clinical Research at URMC. “Being virtually and physically present in the community will help us address health disparities - like those seen in COVID-19 - and ensure that therapies work for everyone.”
With continued funding for these efforts, the UR CTSI will ramp up efforts to connect with communities that experience health disparities and are typically underrepresented in health research including Black, Latinx, Deaf, pediatric, elderly and rural communities.
Integrating research with clinical practice
Despite close physical proximity, biomedical research and clinical care can often feel worlds apart. Research advances - like developing a vaccine - can take years to be scaled up, distributed and fully implemented in clinical practices. And it’s an even bigger challenge to ensure those advances are equally accessible to all members of a community.
Over the next five years, the UR CTSI will build a “learning healthcare system” connecting researchers, clinicians and diverse community members. Working together, these players will identify health challenges and build solutions that are responsive to community and health-system needs and can be easily adopted.
Beyond connecting the people behind research and medicine, the UR CTSI is also actively working on integrating the data from each of those realms. The recently-launched COVID-19 Biobank is just one example of this plan in action. The Biobank not only provides researchers with access to COVID-19-positive and -negative blood samples, but it also links those samples with relevant laboratory and de-identified patient data. This will save time and effort for researchers, give them a broader view of the COVID-19 situation and help them find connections they might not have otherwise seen.
Including diverse voices and viewpoints in research
In addition to ensuring diversity among our research participants, the UR CTSI is renewing its commitment to diversifying its research workforce. The institute will work to break down the “walls” that keep members of the Black and Latinx communities, women and people with disabilities from advancing in biomedical research careers. In the coming years, the UR CTSI vows to recruit more faculty and students from underrepresented groups. By encouraging our existing workforce to recognize and address the inborn biases inherent in all people, the institute hopes to build a more inclusive and welcoming environment in which a diverse workforce can thrive.
“As COVID-19 continues to decimate the health and safety of Americans, we must invest in biomedical research and clinical care to better understand and end this unprecedented health crisis,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “The groundbreaking Clinical and Translational Science Institute at the University of Rochester Medical Center has always been a premier biomedical research institution, and I am confident their expertise in public health will help New York State, and the entire nation, safely progress into a post-COVID-19 era. This critical NIH funding will fund essential research to combat this virus and develop a life-saving vaccine as we strive to keep every American healthy and safe.”
“URMC has always been a leader in research, innovation, and transformative medical advancement -- and this award recognizes the significant implications of their work,” said Congressman Joe Morelle. “Now more than ever, as we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, we see how essential research like this truly is to improving public health. I’m grateful for the groundbreaking work URMC continues to do which has a profound impact on the entire scientific community.”
"New York State is using data and science to fight COVID-19 and it is working because of research institutions like the University of Rochester," said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. “The University of Rochester is home to world-renowned medical and public health experts who are at the forefront of tackling this unprecedented pandemic and I recently witnessed firsthand the leading research being done. Today’s commitment from the National Institutes of Health is recognition of Governor Cuomo and New York State’s investment in public health and ongoing support of URMC's Clinical Translational Science Institute.”