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New Virginia Tech Institute to Focus on Neuroscience with Molecular Genetics, Informatics Components

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The newly-named founding executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute said it will begin operations this fall by ramping up a program in neuroscience — his longtime research focus, and a specialty of the university — to be followed over the first two years by programs in cardiovascular science and cancer.

Michael Friedlander told GenomeWeb Daily News the institute is preparing to recruit its first researchers, with roughly 30 teams anticipated over the next five to seven years.

"Literally in a matter of months, I'm hoping to have anywhere between three, four, five, and six teams in the neuroscience area on the ground and running," Friedlander said in an interview Friday. "And hopefully late in the first year, and certainly going into the second year, we'll be focusing on the other two areas of cardiovascular biology and cancer biology."

The ultimate number of teams, Friedlander said, may be more or less than 30, depending on available space and facilities, and the seniority of the new hires.

"If we end up with more senior people with larger teams, the number may be closer to 30, or maybe high-20s. If we end up with a balance of smaller and junior teams, it could be 35 or 38," he added.

Each team will have between five to 15 support staffers focused on applying molecular genetics, informatics, physiology, and computational modeling with behavioral studies to the study of human body functioning, as well as on developing new diagnostics and therapeutics.

The institute will seek to align its work with areas of active research at Virginia Tech, including inflammation, infectious disease, neuroscience, and cardiovascular science and cardiology.

"We're working as we speak right now on developing the ads and defining the types of people that we want to bring in, and so forth. We're hoping to start the recruiting right away. We're not going to wait till I move in to start doing that (recruiting)," Friedlander said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to identify some of the key people that come in that first weave within the fall, certainly by winter of this year."

Friedlander spoke two days after Virginia Tech announced his appointment to the helm of the research institute, which will take effect June 1. He is now the Wilhelmina Robertson professor and chair of the neuroscience department, and director of neuroscience initiatives, at the Baylor College of Medicine.

Friedlander has focused his research on brain development, traumatic brain injury, and synaptic plasticity. Before joining BCM in 2005, Friedlander spent 26 years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he served as founding chair of neurobiology at the School of Medicine, as well as director of the Civitan International Research Center and the UAB Mental Retardation Research Center, and the first Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute Professor.

Among his challenges at Virginia Tech, he said, will be to develop collaborative translational research programs, and forge partnerships with the university's Carilion School of Medicine, and the Carilion Clinic, a healthcare provider that operates a network of eight not-for-profit hospitals and a group practice with more than 600 physicians.

"Through that, we not only have the opportunity to collaborate with clinical practitioners and care providers, but with clinical investigators that are interested in using approaches, including human genomics and behavioral modification, for health, lifestyles, etc., [and] to tie that into our more fundamental research at the institute," Friedlander explained.

That research, he said, will begin with the relocation from Baylor of his neuroscience lab, focusing on basic brain research, brain diseases, and diseases of the nervous system.

"Our goal is to go after large populations, literally thousands of people, study the underlying genomics with some of these disorders of the brain," Friedlander said, "both those that are developmental disorders, that happen in children for example, as well as neurodegenerative disease and aging, and as well as disorders of what would be called mental health."

Friedlander's lab now has nine staffers. "Of that, five will be definitely coming along. There's another two that still I'm working on, and I'll see what happens," he said.

To fill the remaining positions, he said, "I'm hoping to be able to hire and attract a group of other neuroscientists from around the country to build in that area."

"We're really going to go after people that are outstanding and have national and international reputations" that include being published in leading journals, Friedlander told GWDN.

Friedlander's lab will bring with it at least one and possibly two existing grants. One is Friedlander's $1.6 million, five-year US Department of Defense grant for research into traumatic brain injury. "We study very basic mechanisms on how traumatic brain injury affects the circuitry in the brain, and the ability of the brain to respond, and what's called plasticity — the ability of damaged neural circuits to repair themselves, reactivate, and undergo learning, and hopefully with the long term goal of developing therapeutic interventions."

Also, Friedlander is in the final year of a $1.7 million, NIH-funded grant to study the visual processing areas of the brain. He said he has not decided whether the transfer the last year of work to Virginia Tech, or work to renew the grant first and transfer the work funded by that grant to the new institute. The research also benefited last year from a roughly $200,000 supplemental grant funded through the $862 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The institute's cardiovascular focus, according to Friedlander, will be "with respect to developmental biology of cardiovascular disorders, environmental effects, and lifestyle, and nutritional effects, and cardiovascular disease genetics, and so forth."

The cancer biology focus, Friedlander said, will not immediately seek to build a comprehensive cancer research hub such as Baylor's NCI-designated Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center. Instead, he said, the institute will focus on a few areas of cancer research, including "the genotyping of tumors, going after specific diagnoses of genetically different types of tumors, and variety of cancer, in terms of developing strategies, both for biomarkers for diagnosis and developing individualized therapeutics based on that."

Resources for the new institute, according to Friedlander, will include a viral transfection facility, cell culture facilities, "a standard stock" of molecular biology core facilities that include ultra centrifuges and PCR tools. He noted that some core lab equipment the institute will use already exists at Virginia Tech's campus.

The institute will also carry out cellular and sub-cellular imaging studies using multiple-photon laser scanning confocal microscopes, as well as functional magnetic resonance imaging in animals and humans.

Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic will team up to invest "on the order of $45 million to $50 million" for operations over seven to 10 years, he said, though the two institutions are still working out how much each will spend over the first two years — among issues administrators are set to start tackling during a visit to Carilion by Friedlander this week.

Some of those funds have been used for pilot and seed grants toward collaborative projects by researchers at Virginia Tech and Carilion. The new institute is designed to build on existing strengths of both institutions — such as the clinic's clinical research effort and its diagnostic and service labs focused on clinical trials and evaluating patients with various therapies.

The institute will also use existing proteomics facilities at the Fralin Life Science Institute and the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, which last October named Harold (Skip) Garner executive director. Both institutes are based at Virginia Tech's campus in Blacksburg, Va.

"We'll be working with them, collaborating, and trying to make use of some of those facilities. It would be silly for us to duplicate facilities like that that we can collaborate on," said Friedlander.

Like the medical school, the research institute is set to move on or about Sept. 1 into permanent space within a $59 million, 153,000-square-foot building now under construction near Carilion Clinic. To date, the institute has been virtual, led on an interim basis by Dennis Dean, the Fralin institute's director, with administrative staffers who will eventually work with Friedlander.

Funding for the new permanent facility, which will house the institute and the Carilion medical school, came from a $1.4 billion capital projects bond package approved in 2008 by Virginia lawmakers and then-Gov. Tim Kaine.

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