January 13, 2006

Research enterprise plan unveiled

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Wayne Ray, Ph.D., and colleagues are examining alternatives to the current process of drug approval in this country.
photo by Dana Johnson

Research enterprise plan unveiled

Vanderbilt University Medical Center's new strategic plan to strengthen its research enterprise has been completed.

The product of a year's worth of meetings with faculty, students and staff, the plan is designed to help Vanderbilt continue to compete successfully for research funding, and to help place it among an “elite group” of academic medical centers.

“Research at Vanderbilt has experienced extraordinary growth,” said Jeffrey R. Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research. “It also has reached a stage where strategic focus is essential if we are to continue to grow relative to our peers. With that in mind, our strategic plan takes broad, multidisciplinary approaches aimed at the biggest challenges in human health.”

The 75-page plan aims to strengthen the basic sciences and translational research in three broad theme areas:

• Personalized health and health care — understanding how an individual's molecular and environmental context predicts risk of disease and response to therapy.

• Therapeutic discovery and translation — discovering potential new therapies and therapeutic targets, and accelerating their translation to clinical practice.

• Public health and health care — understanding how best to deliver the highest quality health care to diverse populations.

Toward these ends, the plan envisions an institutional strategy for biomarker discovery. An example is a “big science” initiative to find serum (proteomic) cancer markers that will be coordinated by the recently established Jim Ayers Institute for Pre-Cancer Detection and Diagnosis.

Another key part of the “personalized health” theme: the recently announced DNA Databank Resource. This anonymous database of genetic and clinical information will contribute to research efforts to find the key links between genes and disease, and between genes and drug response.

To facilitate therapeutic discovery, the plan recommends design and construction of a new vivarium to increase the Medical Center's capacity for housing large and small laboratory animals; expansion of the Center for Molecular Toxicology and the small-molecule drug discovery program; and development of an antibody therapeutics program.

Translational research will be facilitated by construction of a “dry lab” building, which would house biomedical informatics, clinical trials organizations and other supportive functions. The building is currently proposed for the top of a six-level parking garage that will replace Medical Center South at the corner of 21st Avenue South and Pierce Avenue.

As for public health, the plan recommends establishment of an “Institute of Medicine and Public Health” that would enhance internal coordination among existing entities, including the Center for Health Services Research and the Institute for Global Health, and establish new ones, such as a Center for Epidemiologic Research.

Another new program, the Center for Quality Aging, would aim to improve the quality and efficiency of care in nursing homes, the management of chronic illnesses and the coordination of care across settings.

Through clinical information technology, the DNA databank, and expansion of research support services in the Office of Research, the Medical Center also aims to recruit more patients and faculty to participate in clinical research.

A research administration systems team is working on on-line instruments to make it easier for faculty to participate in research. “We think that Vanderbilt is the place that can do this, that can make clinical research a living part of clinical practice,” Balser said.

Other goals include facilitating linkages for drug discovery with non-profit and industry partners, and investigating educational and career development initiatives to bolster the training and retention of M.D. and Ph.D. scientists. Establishing a Ph.D. program in epidemiology is recommended.

From a financial standpoint, the Medical Center will seek increased support from philanthropists, non-profit organizations and industry as it anticipates a slow-down in the expansion of federal research-related spending.

In addition, “continued efforts to maintain high financial productivity in both new and existing research space will be essential if we are to secure the cash-flow needed for discretionary spending, including investments in new faculty and … expanded infrastructure,” the plan concludes.

The strategic plan can be reviewed at the Office of Research Web site: https://medschool.mc.vanderbilt.edu/oor. For more information or to respond to the plan, contact Andrea Baruchin, Ph.D., director of strategic planning for the Office of Research, at 343-0729 or andrea.baruchin@vanderbilt.edu.