New UA institute aims to deliver discoveries more quickly to Arizona patients

March 8, 2010

By hammersmith

Every year, promising experimental treatments for heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s fail to reach patients simply because people don’t know about them. Many doctors aren’t able to keep track of all the prospective therapies emerging from laboratories, and patients are even more in the dark.

A new initiative in translational medicine based at the University of Arizona would turn on the light.

The Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), a $20 million project that UA hopes will garner another $20 million from the National Institutes of Health, would provide Arizona patients, especially those whose health is in the most dire straits, quicker access to research discoveries with the potential to extend and save their lives.

“We want to bring to the people of Arizona the best that is available in medicine,” said William Crist, UA’s vice president for health affairs. “A university of this size and caliber provides a perfect environment to translate innovative research directly into new therapeutic solutions.”

The CTSI could also end up accelerating economic development for Arizona. Universities are potent generators of valuable biomedical technologies, products, and services–that is, if an adequate mechanism exists to develop and market them in the private sector. Proven relationships do exist between UA’s basic scientists and clinicians associated with the university, thanks to institutions like the Arizona Cancer Center and University Medical Center. But the path from “bench-to-bedside” can still be circuitous.

“We need to move towards this being a very significant part of what we do every day,” said Fernando Martinez, director of the university’s BIO5 Institute, in GenomeWeb News. “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 products.

“Take our already strong drug-discovery program, for example,” Dr. Martinez said. “There is no doubt that we will find molecules that we can commercialize for the university, thus providing revenue streams that become ever more critical in times where state funding goes down rapidly.”

Dr. Martinez will direct the CTSI, which will initially operate out of BIO5’s clinical-research facility, while involving core resources throughout the university. In time, UA expects the new institute to have statewide reach. Dr. Martinez said that the CTSI will soon need to develop its own facilities, an effort that will occur concurrently with other university projects, such as the downtown-Phoenix expansion of the Arizona Cancer Center and the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix in partnership with Arizona State University.

“There will be two clinical-research facilities, one in Phoenix and one in Tucson. The one in Phoenix will be shared with the Cancer Center clinical-research unit,” Dr. Martinez said. “The outpatient areas of the two units will initially be similar in size. However, given the much larger size of the Phoenix area, I would not be surprised if, in the next five to 10 years, the Phoenix unit became larger than the Tucson unit.

“We are committed to developing in Phoenix a robust CTSI enterprise in support of the UA College of Medicine in partnership with ASU, and of the ASU College of Nursing and UA College of Pharmacy in Phoenix,” he added.

Resources that are being dedicated immediately to the CTSI include $6 million for hiring faculty for the university’s Translational Biomedicine Program. Dr. Martinez explained in GenomeWeb News that those funds would support the recruitment of seven new faculty over the next three years; each of them would oversee a team of between five and eight post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, and staff members.

That core group of researchers will be supported by additional resources now being marshaled in the establishment of the CTSI, including BIO5’s $5 million Genetically Engineered Mouse Model Core facility and its $3.5 million Arizona Statistics Consulting Laboratory. Altogether, UA’s Transformation Plan, which is being implemented under the direction of Provost Meredith Hay, has called for $20 million to be dedicated to clinical and translational research–enough funding to make waves throughout the university, UA officials believe.

The CTSI will create an “environment in which clinician faculty members have the resources, the mentorship, and the encouragement to dedicate a significant proportion of their time to research,” said Leslie Tolbert, UA’s vice president for research, graduate studies, and economic development.

“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,” Dr. Martinez said in GenomeWeb News.

One of UA’s explicit goals in formally assigning significant assets to the CTSI is to secure additional major funding from NIH’s National Center for Research Resources, which coordinates the Clinical and Translational Science Awards consortium, a national network of institutions that conduct biomedical research. NIH aims to expand the consortium to 60 members over the next two years. Twice before, CTSA applications from Arizona have failed to receive funding.

“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,” Dr. Martinez said in GenomeWeb News.

“We decided that the university in Arizona that had all four health-related schools, including the College of Medicine, had the responsibility to show its clear commitment to providing new resources for translational medicine and its willingness to assume a leadership role in this area in our state,” Dr. Martinez said.

In order to fulfill its mission of taking university research from the laboratory into clinical practice, the CTSI is also targeting formal relationships with university, nonprofit, and private entities throughout the state, including Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. If a biotech firm has a new drug candidate, the CTSI could help the company initiate preclinical and early clinical trials. If a UA discovery is most suited for introduction to the clinic via a health-care provider beyond the university’s borders, the CTSI could orchestrate the translation process.

“We have said that any other institution willing to make similar commitments to the CTSI is welcome to share with us a leadership role in the institute,” Dr. Martinez said. “In addition, all CTSI core facilities, clinical-research units, and pilot-project funds will be made available to anybody in the state who has novel ideas for the preservation of health and the prevention and treatment of diseases that affect our population.”

In addition to introducing treatments to patients more rapidly, the CTSI–especially if it becomes part of the CTSA consortium–should also improve UA’s competitiveness for federal research grant awards, a crucial ingredient in commercialization efforts.

When biomedical scientists submit grant applications, Dr. Martinez said in GenomeWeb News, “everybody includes in the program project grants, even the most basic ones, that they have access to resources–through this Clinical and Translational Science Award–that will allow them to put a translational aspect to what they’re doing. It’s kind of a structural-environment type of advantage that is difficult to measure, but it is tangible and real.”

For more information:

Univ. of Arizona Translational Science Institute Expanding with Aim of CTSA Membership,” GenomeWeb News, 03/02/2010

New UA-Based Institute to Boost Bench-to-Bedside Research in Arizona,” University of Arizona news release, 02/17/2010