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Univ. of Arizona Translational Science Institute Expanding with Aim of CTSA Membership

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) - The director of the University of Arizona's newly-formed Clinical and Translational Science Institute hopes the research hub, along with other recently-completed and planned facility projects, will succeed where two past attempts failed in winning for the university a long-sought membership in the National Institutes of Health's Clinical and Translational Science Awards consortium.

The new institute plans to hire seven clinician-scientists over the next three years, using $6 million committed by UA for a translational biomedicine program, institute director Fernando Martinez told GenomeWeb Daily News. Each clinician-scientist is expected to have working with them five to eight postdocs, graduate students, and staffers.

While the new hires are expected to spend most of their time on clinical research, several current UA faculty members are also expected to hold co-appointments with the new clinical and translational institute.

"In the end, I would expect that slowly, the University of Arizona is going to have at least 10 to 20 percent of all of our clinical faculty where one way or the other, we'll have some activity related to the Clinical and Translational Science Institute," Martinez said.

"Not everybody is going to do it, because somebody needs to see the patients every day. But there are people who at different levels of commitment are going to participate in this endeavor. Slowly, we need to move towards this being a very significant part of what we do every day," he added. "This is a service that we can provide to the community in terms of changing a little bit the environment as to how fast we go to the clinic with new product."

The institute, Martinez said, also intends to provide community outreach that links the institute and its affiliated clinical and translational researchers, with healthcare providers and community health organizations committed to improving patient health. Last May, Martinez led a session to train 15 Community Assist of Southern Arizona community health workers, or promotoras, in delivering environmental health information to Spanish-speaking families through in-home visits.

Martinez, who is also director of the university's BIO5 Institute, said that funding is part of a total $20 million UA has either spent, or plans to spend, toward facilities and people specializing in clinical and translational research. That includes, he said, BIO5's more than $5 million Genetically Engineered Mouse Model Core facility opened in 2007, and the Arizona Statistics Consulting Laboratory, for which BIO5 has spent $3.5 million over the past five years.

The clinical and translational research effort, he said, will make use of several other existing university core research centers. UA is home to the Arizona Proteomics Consortium, whose members use a proteomics facility completed in 2006 as a consolidation of several older labs; to the University of Arizona Genetics Core, established by Arizona Research Labs' biotechnology division in 1986, as a fully equipped provider of molecular biology services to researchers from around the world.

"We have a core of resources now that for the first time, I think, allows us to say, 'This is serious business. We can do this at the University of Arizona. We can be competitive nationally,'"Martinez told GWDN.

The $20 million committed by UA toward clinical and translational research is half of what the university projects will be the cost of the institute over five years, so UA plans to seek the other half through a five-year, $20 million CTSA award application it plans to file in October.

UA has tried twice, without success, to join CTSA, a consortium of 46 medical research institutions funded by the NIH's National Center for Research Resources, with plans to grow to 60 institutions by 2012. One institution, the University of Iowa Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, maintains partnerships with UA as well as Iowa State University.

The third time should be the proverbial charm for the university, according to Martinez, who previously did not serve as principal investigator for the two earlier clinical and translational award applications.

"I think the main problem with the two previous applications was that we did not convince the reviewers that there was the kind of institutional support, and the kind of on-the-ground work already done to really say that it was worthwhile to put $20 million in the next five years into that operation. I think what we're doing is a very serious effort to show that we are committed to this as a university," said Martinez, who is also director of UA's Arizona Respiratory Center.

As part of the application process, Martinez said, UA will contact private healthcare providers, hoping that they will join the CTSA effort and, ideally, contribute funding and other resources.

"If they, these contacts we're going to make, are also willing to put resources on the table, great. But that's not going to be a condition. If they have good ideas and they want us to work with them on those good ideas, they're most welcome," Martinez said. "What we need to do is to create the comprehensive resources that will really make people look inward and not outward, in the sense that what people do today is that they go to Iowa or they go to [Johns] Hopkins or whatever when they have to do a project like this because there is no infrastructure in Arizona."

The CTSI will start out at BIO5's Tucson, Ariz., facility, within its existing clinical research unit of more than 3,000 square feet. That space won't include beds; UA plans to build a clinical research unit for the Arizona Cancer Center with five beds for clinical patients, and increase its number of rooms for outpatient visits to 50 from the current 12, as part of a future expansion of the College of Medicine in Phoenix.

Long-term, Martinez said, the institute plans to grow into its own space.

"We will need more space. I think it's going to be in the end something on the order of 10,000 to 20,000 square feet total," he said.

Martinez said the value of the institute goes beyond lab space and researchers, to include cementing UA's commitment to translating basic science discoveries into clinical research — as well as improving the odds of university researchers receiving grant funding from the NIH.

A member of the NIH's National Heart Lung and Blood Institute committee that reviews program project grant applications, Martinez said he has seen even among basic science reviewers a sea change in how they analyze funding requests.

Five to 10 years ago, he recalled, research applications did not hinge on their relevance to human health. Today, he said, "everybody includes in the program project grants, even the most basic ones, that they have access through this Clinical and Translational Science Award; that they have access to resources that will allow them to put a translational vein, a translational aspect to what they're doing.

"That gives them points. It shows that they're interested in impact. The NIH is moving significantly towards this area," Martinez said. "I'm convinced that the colleges and universities that have CTSAs, that are successful in putting together what I am trying to put together at the University of Arizona, are going to be competitive for all the grants that they have. It's kind of a structural environment type of advantage that is difficult to measure, but it is tangible and real."

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