Interdisciplinary collaboration, harnessing big data science, the promise of nanotechnology, and community outreach offer new opportunities to advance the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s research programs, according to the school’s leaders.
“Two years ago, we crafted a strategic plan that set the course for our research portfolio,” said Henri R. Ford, M.D., M.H.A., dean and chief academic officer, at a Strategic Research Planning Session held November 13 at the Don Soffer Clinical Research Center. “We have made significant progress and want to be sure our ideas and priorities are still relevant to benefiting our patients.”
More than 75 researchers took part in the planning session, “Creating Synergies for the Future,” which was based on the four pillars of the Miller School’s research program: Cancer, Neuroscience, HIV/AIDS Emerging Pathogens, and Inflammation, Metabolism & Immunotherapies.
In morning breakouts, researchers engaged in collaborative discussions that paired experts from those four pillars with scientists and others from the four interdisciplinary bridging platforms: BioNIUM (nanomedicine), precision medicine and genomics, regenerative medicine and cell therapies, and population health and health disparities.
“These academic research pillars support our mission of delivering excellent clinical care,” said Edward Abraham, M.D., executive vice president for health affairs and CEO of UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. “Thanks to your dedication and hard work, we are able to offer novel discoveries and therapies that help us build programs that attract patients locally, nationally and internationally.”
Carl Schulman, M.D., Ph.D., M.S.P.H., executive dean for research, kicked off the half-day program noting the importance of research to the Miller School’s mission. “As an academic medical center, we are dedicated to making scientific discoveries that advance clinical care,” said Dr. Schulman. “Our research will provide the cures of the future.”
Dr. Schulman cited several recent accomplishments, including a projected $273 million in 2019 research funding – an increase from the prior year – and an impressive number of publications in the world’s top peer-reviewed journals. He also applauded the “herculean achievement” of gaining the National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation for Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Miller School.
Dr. Schulman welcomed Grace Zhai, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology, to her new role as senior associate dean for basic science research. She will help foster collaborative relationships among research disciplines, provide mentorship to research-active faculty, and facilitate proposal preparation, submission and potential funding. Other actions to support research include a new system and updated data tracking of space utilization, the creation of a new Central Freezer Facility for biological specimens, and a research equipment search tool to promote efficient use of resources.
Major grants in the past year include a five-year, $21.5 million renewal award to the Clinical & Translational Science Institute (CTSI), supplemented by the Miller School of Medicine and the University of Miami Office of the Provost, to fund collaborative research to speed the discovery of new medical treatments and cures. Dr. Schulman also noted UM’s hemispheric reach with a prestigious U54 international grant for research and training with scientific institutions in Argentina, and a five-year $1.3 million award from the NIH Medical Science Training Program to train combined M.D. and Ph.D. students.
Another major step forward noted by Dr. Schulman was the ongoing enrollment success of the NIH-funded nationwide “All of Us” Research Program, which now has more than 7,000 participants in Miami-Dade County. “This opens the door to potential new research studies in many clinical disciplines,” said Stephan Züchner, M.D., Ph.D., the SouthEast Enrollment Center lead principal investigator for the five-year initiative, chair of UM’s Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Department of Human Genetics, and co-director of the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics.
To accelerate the development of new therapies, Dr. Schulman discussed using a “reverse translational medicine approach.” This would begin with identifying human risk factors, and potential targets and biomarkers, then going back to the laboratory studies for discovery and validation, followed by more successful clinical trials. “This could be a far more efficient way to approach clinical research,” he said.
Norma Sue Kenyon, Ph.D., vice provost for innovation at the University of Miami and chief innovation officer of the Miller School of Medicine, encouraged researchers to think about potential commercialization of their discoveries at an early stage of their work, in order to accelerate the bench-to-bedside process.
“It is important to grow our engagement with industry,” added Jeffrey L. Duerk, Ph.D., provost and executive vice president for academic affairs of the University of Miami, citing recent UM partnerships with Magic Leap and Quest Diagnostics. “This session provides a great foundation for looking at new opportunities.”
During the breakout sessions, researchers and clinicians from the four pillars and four bridging platforms engaged in discussions that focused on identifying collaborative projects that will yield significant research projects for the future.
For instance, Joshua Hare, M.D., the Louis Lemberg Professor of Medicine and founding director of the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute (ISCI), noted that regenerative medicine could become a delivery system for treating certain types of cancer, or reducing the toxic impact of certain kinds of treatment.
Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., director of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, noted that cancer is a disease of aging, as are many neurodegenerative diseases and inflammatory conditions. “There are opportunities to develop interdisciplinary research programs focusing on the elderly,” he said.
Several investigators discussed research into health disparities in the highly diverse South Florida population. “We could dig into social determinants of health, such as poverty, and link them with patient outcomes,” said Ana Palacio, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of clinical medicine and co-director of the Resident Scholarly Activity Program. “That type of data would be immensely helpful in addressing health problems in our community.”
Next steps will be to further define collaborative projects that will combine research strengths already in place across the medical campus.
Dr. Schulman is optimistic about the future of research at the Miller School of Medicine, and is confident that we will achieve our goal of pre-eminence among our peers and better outcomes for our patients.