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RTI to Invest $2M in Translational Research Center

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – RTI International, a nonprofit research institute headquartered in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, said it will commit $2 million toward a new research center that will carry out interdisciplinary and translational research focused on molecular epidemiology, genomics, the environment, and health.

Researchers at the new Consortium for Molecular Epidemiology, Genomics, Environment, and Health, also called MEGEH, will specialize in areas comprising all of RTI's research fields, including bioinformatics, biostatistics, engineering, epidemiology, genetics, genomics, and proteomics.

RTI is in process of moving a large part of the consortium into the 78,000-square-foot Johnson building on the institute's headquarters campus.

The consortium has 20 full-time staffers and 10 adjunct professionals from RTI's other areas of study. "The plan is to grow as we bring in the revenue," namely external research grants, Susan Sumner, a senior scientist and head of the center's Metabolomics and Obesity Research Initiative, told GenomeWeb Daily News.

"We believe that the majority of our funding will come from the government agencies. However, we have already been doing proposal development with foundations also," Sumner said Friday.

The consortium will benefit from core capabilities RTI has sought to develop since 2001 in bioinformatics, biostatistics, mass spectrometry, metabolomics, and high-performance computing.

The metabolomics and obesity initiative involves a partnership with East Carolina University's Brody School of Medicine on a childhood obesity study. They hope to learn why some 30 percent of children living in eastern North Carolina are obese — compared with nationwide figures of 17 percent of children aged 6-11, and 17.6 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey — and how the disparity can be addressed.

The partnership is a model of the types of collaborations RTI expects the center to develop, both among RTI researchers and with universities and other research institutions, Sumner said.

RTI is searching for a director for MEGEH, as well as an obesity researcher, Sumner said.

The new director of personalized medicine and translational research, according to the job description, will serve as the research center's scientific and administrative leader, will "set the scientific and strategic direction of the consortium, and will lead the group in the identified direction," as well as "work with the PIs and lead them to capture revenues related to the study of genomics or related areas and the development and implementation of methodologies for this purpose."

The director also is expected to interact with staff throughout RTI's research groups, which include social, statistical, and environmental sciences; international development; the engineering and technology unit, and its pharmaceutical research unit RTI Health Solutions.

RTIs annual portfolio of genetics and genomics research is now $57 million, which according to spokesman Patrick Gibbons encompasses a broad spectrum of activity ranging from the "PhenX" project to develop standard measures for phenotypes and exposures — funded by a three-year, $6.8 million grant from NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute announced in 2007 — to more traditional NIH-funded research.

That's a roughly 8 percent share of RTI's total research revenues, which climbed to $717.9 million for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, according to the institute's annual report. Research revenues rose 1 percent from FY 2008, when RTI recorded $709.7 million.

RTI is one of two research institutes in the RTP region to have launched new translational research hubs in the past two months. Last month, Duke University Medical Center opened its Duke Clinical Research Unit, a $5.3 million facility designed to apply systems biology and molecular medicine approaches to early-phase studies of new drug or medical device candidates, especially at the proof-of-concept or "first-in-human" clinical stages.

Founded in 1958 as Research Triangle Institute, RTI employs more than 4,000 people worldwide and serves government and business clients in more than 40 countries.