October 18, 2002

Academic Venture Capital Fund supports new interschool research centers

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Frances Williams Preston, right, presents Fran Visco the breast cancer awareness award at a luncheon this week. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Academic Venture Capital Fund supports new interschool research centers

Vanderbilt University has launched a major internal grant program designed to provide selected faculty researchers with the support required to assume leading roles in a number of important research frontiers. The five-year program is funded by an unusual mechanism, called the Academic Venture Capital Fund (AVCF), designed to raise more than $100 million for investment in new research initiatives that campus leaders judge have the potential to become programs of national stature.

“Assuming that the money is spent wisely, this is the most significant effort to accelerate the development and enhancement of its academic research programs in the modern history of Vanderbilt,” said one of the program’s architects, Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs. “I don’t believe there has ever been a time when this amount of new capital has been available for people and programs in a relatively short period.”

This month, Nicholas Z. Zeppos, Provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, announced that the university approved AVCF support for two multi-year “interschool” research initiatives. They join six other multi-year initiatives and a one-year planning grant authorized late last year. Each of these efforts draws together faculty expertise from a number of different departments located in two or more of the university’s colleges and schools.

“We’re very excited by the possibilities that these new initiatives open up for Vanderbilt,” said Zeppos.

For years, researchers have realized that many exciting new discoveries take place at the intersections between different fields of study, such as physics and chemistry or biology and engineering. Supporting such interdisciplinary efforts, particularly during the early formative years, has been difficult for universities like Vanderbilt, which typically are organized into financially distinct colleges and schools. The AVCF provides a mechanism that will allow Vanderbilt to increase its support for such interdisciplinary research that cuts across traditional college and school boundaries.

In the late 1990s, Vanderbilt’s central campus and medical center prepared independent strategic academic plans. Shortly after Gordon Gee took over as chancellor, however, he created the Integrated Financial Planning Council, and asked them to find a way to create a fund that the central administration could use to invest in academic programs. Initially, the IFP consisted of Jacobson, Provost Thomas Burish and Vice Chancellor for Administration Lauren Brisky. It was later expanded to include Zeppos, then vice chancellor for Institutional Planning and Advancement, and William Spitz, vice chancellor for Investments and Treasurer.

“We finally developed a very, very aggressive plan with a five-year target of investing more than $100 million in academic programs,” said Jacobson. “Then the big challenge — and the thing that took the most work — was coming up with a source for that money.”

The program is funded through four basic revenue sources: funds from the “quasi-endowment,” unrestricted money in the endowment that comes primarily from operating budget surpluses from prior years that have been invested profitably; the IDS tax, a general revenue tax that the central administration levies across the university; focused philanthropy; and, a portion of the university’s future earnings from its technology transfer program.

The Vanderbilt Board of Trust’s Executive Committee approved the formation of the AVCF in February 2001 and it was granted spending authority last fall.

Jacobson stresses that the fund’s procedures are not set in concrete: “This program is going to undergo a continuous quality-improvement analysis. We’re going to look at it and get input from faculty and others regarding how well it is working. Hopefully, we’ve gotten it mostly right, but we fully understand that there may be some things that need to be changed and we will be doing that.”

VUMC-related Academic Venture Capital Research Initiatives

The Functional Genomics of Zebrafish —

Dr. Alfred L. George Jr., Grant W. Liddle Professor of Medicine, director, division of Genetic Medicine

The zebrafish has proven to be of great value as a genetic model system and is poised to play a lead role in the post-genome era of research, particularly in the areas of vertebrate development and disease. The campus currently has one small aquatic facility for zebrafish. The new initiative will add a second facility that is large enough to maintain and breed thousands of these fish and support recruitment of additional faculty members devoted to zebrafish genomics. The facility will be used to support a large-scale mutagenesis program designed to identify new mutants that can used as probes for understanding basic developmental and disease processes. Unlike the fruit fly and nematode that are widely used in genetic studies, the zebrafish possesses the complex organ systems of the vertebrate. Studies of zebrafish genes have provided models for several human genetic disorders, including one type of anemia and polycystic kidney disease.

The Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology — Lawrence J. Marnett, Ph.D., Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research and director, A.B. Hancock Jr. Memorial Laboratory for Cancer Research, and Ned Porter, Ph.D., Stevenson Professor of Chemistry

The mission of the VICB is to establish research and education programs in the application of chemical technologies to important biological problems. Vanderbilt has strong basic science programs and outstanding research and clinical centers that focus on understanding the molecular basis of disease. As these molecular studies increase our understanding, application of the tools of chemistry can be used to design and develop new agents to detect, treat, and prevent disease. A significant number of research groups throughout the Institution conduct chemically oriented research, which provides a strong base on which to build. The compact nature of the campus and the ease of collaboration will facilitate efforts to create exciting new interdisciplinary research and training programs. The new initiative will recruit new faculty and graduate students, establish an active seminar program, stimulate interdisciplinary research, and create core facilities.

Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience —

Jeffrey D. Schall, Ph.D., professor of Psychology

Understanding how the brain produces thought and emotion is the goal of the Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience (CICN). Not only will such an understanding provide an effective basis for preventing and treating mental and neurological disorders, but it will herald a change in humanity’s conception of its place in the universe similar to those that took place in the 16th century when Copernicus proved that the sun does not sit at the center of the universe. CICN is being organized around three areas of existing strength: sensory science — the study of vision, hearing and touch; development, learning and memory, including brain plasticity and developmental disabilities; and clinical neuroscience, such as dealing with the causes and cures of brain and mind disorders like schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. The center will foster two areas: theoretical and computational neuroscience and biomedical engineering. In addition, CICN is forming a new partnership with the divinity and law schools to study the broader legal, ethical and moral implications of research findings with bearing on the mind-brain problem.

Research in Proteomics and Functional Biology —

Richard Caprioli, Ph.D., Stanley Cohen Professor of Biochemistry; Shawn Levy, Ph.D., assistant professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics; Phoebe Stewart, Ph.D., professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics; and John Gore, Ph.D., University Professor of Radiology and of Biomedical Engineering

Proteomics is the study of the function of the entire set of proteins associated with a given genome. Because proteins carry out nearly all the basic functions within cells, understanding how they work is absolutely critical for the understanding of health and disease. The initiative supports four interdependent core facilities to aid researchers in proteomics studies:

• The Proteomics Laboratory, headed by Caprioli, will make cutting-edge mass spectrometry technologies available to all Vanderbilt faculty. These include “mass spectrometry imaging” that identifies proteins with normal tissue within a given cell under development by Caprioli and protein complex identification, led by Andrew Link, Ph.D., assistant professor of Microbiology.

• The Gene Profiling Laboratory, headed by Levy, provides tools for identifying all of the genes expressed in a given cell at a given time and the informatics tools required to make some functional sense of them.

• The Cryo-EM facility, led by Stewart, brings a new level of characterization of protein structure and molecular organization to campus and makes possible the interrogation of protein-protein interactions at a new level.

• The Animal and Human Research Imaging Facility, headed by Gore, allows the integration of structural information in the context of a whole organism. The application of emerging noninvasive tools, such as functional MRI, provides a basis for increased understanding of normal physiology and behavior and can help evaluate disease and response to educational, lifestyle and therapeutic intervention.