New $19.9M grant will expand hub for translational science, biomedical research in Rhode Island

With five years of renewed federal funding, Advance-CTR will support researchers in taking their work from bench to bedside to the broader community, ultimately making a direct and positive impact on the people of Rhode Island.

 Since 2016, the Brown University-based, federally funded Advance Clinical and Translational Research program has supported biomedical and public health scholars across Rhode Island who are working to turn scientific discoveries into solutions that can improve the lives of patients.

This month, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences awarded Brown, the host institution on the federal award, a $19.9 million grant to fund Advance-CTR’s expansion into a second five-year phase.

The program funds clinical and translational research — at its core, research that starts in laboratories and progresses into clinical and community settings and makes a positive impact on people’s health through diagnosis, treatment or policy change — and provides education and professional resources to early-career investigators across Rhode Island.

The successful partnership across the major research institutions in the state has resulted in a surge in translational research, according to University leaders.

““Advance-CTR has been instrumental in helping us realize our vision for expanding translational research, both at Brown and with key partners in the affiliated hospitals and URI,” said Dr. Jack A. Elias, senior vice president for health affairs and dean of medicine and biological sciences at Brown. “It’s been a factor in seeding grants that have led us to a 186% increase in external research funding over the past few years. You can’t make leaps like that unless you have the infrastructure, training and mentoring that Advance-CTR provides.”

Over its first five years, Advance-CTR has become a model for scientific collaboration that crosses academic disciplines, builds on the strengths of multiple partners and ultimately makes a difference for patients, said Dr. Sharon Rounds, the program’s director and associate dean for clinical affairs at Brown.

“Advance-CTR has created a centralized hub of education, communication and information for all health-focused researchers in the state,” Rounds said. “In terms of leading research and getting projects off the ground to help local communities, the program is an impressive example of how much can be achieved, and how ideas can come to life and visions can be realized when different groups work together.”

After its 2016 launch, Advance-CTR leaders surveyed Rhode Island health and medicine researchers and learned that pilot funding for new research projects and training and assistance in key skill sets were the most in-demand resources. In response, the program was structured to include a pilot projects award program, a professional development core, and direct assistance to researchers through three service cores in which Advance-CTR faculty and staff provide research consultations in biomedical informatics and cyberinfrastructure work, clinical research design, epidemiology, biostatistics and more.

“We are so happy to have been able to fill these crucial gaps,” Rounds said, “and we plan to build on and expand these offerings in phase two.”

Seeding high-impact research projects

Over its first five years, Advance-CTR established an educational and technical infrastructure to spur researchers from partner institutions to design, conduct and analyze more studies that build on basic research and translate that science into therapies. One of the primary ways the program has sparked collaboration is by offering pilot project grants to investigator teams from different disciplines, departments or institutions. Funding and resources can serve as positive incentives for a scientist to team up with researchers outside of their core area of focus, Rounds said, creating space for unlikely collaboration — and innovation — to happen.

In funding new projects with the potential to benefit patients, Advance-CTR has awarded 85 investigators from Brown, URI, Care New England, Lifespan and the Providence V.A. with funding for clinical and translational research that addresses community health priorities in Rhode Island ranging from treatments for substance use disorder and Alzheimer’s disease to mental health interventions for adolescents and veterans. In many cases, the funds have helped to seed and grow research projects to the point of being competitive at the national level. Those 85 investigators went on to successfully win 58 additional awards — including 32 grant awards from the National Institutes of Health — as a result of the funding and support they received from the program. And all 10 of the early career investigators who participated in Advance-CTR’s Mentored Research Awards program went on to obtain additional external funding and launch their independent research careers.

“The awards have been spectacularly successful in helping young researchers develop their projects and ideas so that they can then go on to become established investigators in critical research areas,” Rounds said.

One of those researchers, Dr. Amin Zand Vakili, was recently awarded a Clinical Science Research and Development career award from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for his research on post-traumatic stress disorder — new funding enabled by earlier receipt of a 2018 Mentored Research Award from Advance-CTR, which enabled the assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown and at the Providence V.A. to pursue his research program.

Zand Vakili’s work is a textbook representation of translational science: He is using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to link individual PTSD symptoms to specific brain networks, which could someday be used to inform targeted and individualized treatments for military veterans and other patients with PTSD. The Advance-CTR award came during a crucial time in this physician-scientist’s career as he was developing his own research program.

A biologist by training, Zand Vakili credits the Advance-CTR award with helping him learn more about quantitative approaches and expand his scope to data science.

“The CTR award functioned more like a training program — I built relationships and interacted with lots of cores,” Zand Vakili said. “I took a programming course. I adopted something, implemented it, and got feedback and mentoring from the service core leads along the way. Now I’m moving toward computational psychiatry and neuroscience work as a result.”

Turning research ideas into funding and commercial ventures

In addition to funding, Advance-CTR offered research support to investigators in three initial focus areas: biostatistics and research design, biomedical informatics and clinical research. The program has provided 1,094 research consultations on these topics to investigators across Rhode Island, including 435 faculty members from partner institutions (including Brown and URI) who have presented and published their findings and/or received external awards as a result of those consultations. Over 735 investigators have been trained in biostatistical methods such as systematic review, data collection and analysis, and research design. And through a new program for mentors, 111 faculty mentors have been trained statewide on how to improve their effectiveness with junior faculty mentees and facilitate their career success.

“The mentorship, the training in biostatistics and research design — these just weren’t available at a statewide level,” said Edward Hawrot, senior associate dean of biology at Brown and program coordinator for Advance-CTR. “This partnership program has fundamentally changed how researchers in Rhode Island collaborate, for the good of current and future patients.”

Carly Goldstein, an assistant professor (research) of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown, was able to use skills she honed through Advance-CTR to launch a successful independent research career. Goldstein received a Mentored Research Award from the program in 2017 and credits the support she received with helping her secure pivotal NIH funding. After an early funding proposal was unsuccessful, she used feedback from Advance-CTR mentors to refine her application and obtain a grant award to build a behavioral weight loss intervention for cardiac rehabilitation patients.

“The exposure to different perspectives that I received came at a really good time,” Goldstein said. “It was helpful to hear the reactions of the principal investigators and other faculty leaders in Advance-CTR because basic scientists will think really differently about things. This diversity of perspectives improved my grantsmanship skills.”

 

Eliza Van Reen speaking at a podium
Eliza Van Reen, who received an Advance-CTR pilot project grant in 2016, founded a start-up based on the results of the research she conducted at Brown.

 

A key element to successfully translating a discovery into a therapy, Rounds said, is being able to commercialize an idea and bring it to the people who would benefit from it. To help move research along this pipeline, Advance-CTR has offered workshops and training sessions in entrepreneurial skills like applying for a patent and engaging with venture capitalists. To date, the program has helped two participants submit a successful patent application and launch a start-up called Circadian Positioning Systems (CPS).

CPS grew out of the research of two former Brown scientists — Gustavo Fernandes in engineering and Eliza Van Reen in psychiatry and human behavior — whose research launched them into new careers as entrepreneurs. Van Reen had worked in the lab of Mary Carskadon, researching the connections between the circadian timing system and sleep-wake patterns of children. While at Brown in 2016, Van Reen and Fernandes were awarded an Advance-CTR pilot project grant for their research on how changes in school lighting systems might affect student performance. After the project yielded meaningful results, Fernandes and Van Reen decided to commercialize their findings. In 2017, they launched a company, now CPS, to design programmable lighting systems to manipulate biological sleep-wake rhythms in response to the demands of external environments (for example, helping a person on the night shift feel awake enough to work). In addition to a patent on their idea, the pair received a research grant from the National Science Foundation and were accepted into an incubator program for science and technology start-ups. CPS is currently working with the U.S. Department of Defense to help Marines manage their fatigue during training.

“Advance-CTR gave us the boost we needed to finalize data sets and show proof of concept,” Van Reen said. Noting the intense pressure of founding a start-up, she also said she valued the enduring support she found in the Advance-CTR network of researchers. “Even after leaving Brown, knowing that our mentors and fellow researchers there wanted us to succeed has helped me stay focused in developing and growing this company.”

With the new federal funding, Rounds said that Advance-CTR will provide more awards at varying amounts to offer investigators as many resources as possible to collect preliminary data, improve grant applications for resubmission and access the support and mentorship that can be crucial in landing new funding from the NIH and other agencies.

Partnering with the community

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Advance-CTR launched a collaborative effort with Progreso Latino, a nonprofit serving Latinx communities in Rhode Island, to increase the uptake of COVID-19 testing for that population with the goal of informing culturally relevant health interventions to overcome long-standing inequity in access to health care.

This type of community engagement and outreach will become a guiding principle for all Advance-CTR activities in the next phase of NIH funding, according to initiative leaders. The new federal award will enable the program to establish a community engagement and outreach core to help facilitate successful partnerships between investigators and community members on research that addresses community-identified health priorities.

“Community organizations will be our partners from the earliest stages,” Hawrot said.

Members of the new core will be deeply involved with all initiatives to ensure that researchers are thinking about how to use resources to impact population health, he said. The idea is to bring community partners and researchers together to brainstorm ideas for projects that could positively impact the community, yet are also feasible from a research perspective and likely to receive continuing financial support.

“Advance-CTR is built on a philosophy and culture of partnership and reciprocity,” Rounds said. “We look forward to sharing research with the community and talking to partners to learn more about what they need from our scientists, and how we can help them live healthier lives.”

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