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Major NIH Award Makes Miami CTSI a Hub for Biomedical Discovery and Innovation

The Miami Clinical and Translational Science Institute has received a five-year $21.5 million National Institutes of Health grant, which will be 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.

CTSI Leadership and Central Operations Team: from left, top row, Patricia Avissar, Caprice Battle, Marisabel Davalos, Jonelle Wright, Ph.D., Sheela Dominguez and Stella Covelli; from left, bottom row, Rosalina Das, Raquel Perez, Dushyantha Jayaweera, M.D., Ralph L. Sacco, M.D., M.S., Daru Lane Ransford and Chin Chin Lee.

This is CTSI’s second cycle of funding. It was originally funded through a five-year NIH grant in 2012 led by founder and honorary director Jose Szapocznik, Ph.D., and established as a university-wide institute the following year. Since then, it has used the funding to support a broad range of initiatives aimed at accelerating clinical and translational research.

“Creating interdisciplinary research connections across the university is a critical part of the university’s Roadmap,” said UM Provost Jeffrey L. Duerk, Ph.D. “We have remarkable depth and breadth in our faculty, and for them to achieve even more groundbreaking impact from their discoveries, we need to find new ways to connect them. The CTSA grant and its programs will be an important asset for us. The award reflects our national leadership in interdisciplinary team science.”

The renewal grant also raises the profile of CTSI, making it the Miami hub of the new nationwide NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) Trial Innovation Network. Its local partners are Jackson Health System, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, OneFlorida Clinical Research Consortium, Health Choice Network and Health Council of South Florida. Nationally, Miami CTSI is one of nearly 60 hubs that will form powerful connections to speed the pace of translational research.

“The CTSA provides a tremendous financial infrastructure to expand our mission,” said Ralph L. Sacco, M.D., M.S., professor and chair of the Department of Neurology, and Olemberg Family Chair in Neurological Disorders, who heads Miami CTSI’s executive leadership as Principal Investigator and Director. “That includes training, mentoring, and enhancing the careers of our research workforce; culturalizing our research to be appropriate for our diverse region across the patient lifespan; partnering with diverse stakeholders in team science; and increasing clinical/translational research quality and efficiency by improving research processes and promoting cutting-edge informatics.”

The “team science” approach is the future of research at UM, said Miller School Dean Henri R. Ford, M.D., MHA. “The lone scientist at a microscope is a thing of the past. As our understanding becomes more sophisticated, our research challenges become more complex. Bringing together individuals with different skill sets will enable us to pick up the pace.”

CTSI, supported by the initial 2012-2017 NIH grant, played a central role in the transformation of the university’s overall research enterprise. Dr. Sacco offers three examples of CTSI’s dozens of achievements to date:

• CTSI Manager Brendaly Rodriguez, M.A., under the CTSI Community Engagement and Cultural Diversity Program, led by Co-Directors Olveen Carrasquillo, M.D., and Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., developed a certification program for community health workers that trains them to participate in patient-centered outcomes research through community health assessments, program evaluations and clinical studies. The program, which began locally and now has certified 100 workers throughout the state of Florida, is a way of using a new credentialing initiative to expand the number of researchers in a five-year project to address health care disparities — particularly cancer and chronic disease management. Word of the program’s success has spread across the country, with launches being prepared in California, Texas and Tennessee.

• A team of researchers in the Department of Otolaryngology led by Suhrud M. Rajguru, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering and otolaryngology, has developed a novel system for delivering therapeutic hypothermia locally to the inner ear in an animal model to conserve residual hearing following cochlear implant surgical trauma. During cochlear implantation, trauma can lead to cell death and a loss of residual hair cells in the cochlea. Dr. Rajguru’s procedure is performed using a custom-designed probe perfused with cooled fluorocarbon. The approach has the potential to ensure that the sensory structures in the cochlea are left undamaged, enabling patients to benefit from future technologies and therapies. The CTSA renewal will continue to fund similar scientific breakthroughs in the future through the Miami CTSI’s Pilot Program.

• Emmanuel Thomas, M.D., Ph.D., research assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, returned to his hometown of Miami in 2012 with a mission — to start a translational research program that would bridge clinical medicine and basic science by developing integrated, multidisciplinary approaches to the study of liver diseases. His timing was perfect. The first round of NIH funding was received that year, and since then Dr. Thomas’s team science approach has been leveraging both resources and clinical/scientific expertise available through the Miami CTSI, the Schiff Center for Liver Diseases, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Miami Center for AIDS Research. His ongoing research has a special focus on the 20 percent of HIV-positive individuals who are also infected with hepatitis C.

“These are excellent examples of the importance of building bridges between academic research and clinical care,” said Edward Abraham, M.D., executive vice president for health affairs and CEO of UHealth. “The goal is moving discoveries from bench to bedside as quickly as possible, and this new funding will enable us to develop the collaborations necessary to make that happen.”

With five more years of funding secured, the Miami CTSI’s plan is to continue and enhance the programs and services initiated in the first funding period, strengthen and expand research collaboration among CTSI partners, build on the many achievements realized, and continue to function as a CTSA hub by taking part in the national CTSA Trial Innovation Network and sharing best practices and innovative methods, particularly with regard to culturalizing health sciences.

Specific goals include:

• Provide education, training, career development, and mentoring to enhance research excellence in our clinical/translational research workforce.

• Advance clinical/translational research through partnerships and innovative methods of engaging diverse stakeholders.

• Integrate disciplines and translational phases to accelerate discovery that benefits the health of diverse populations and individuals across the lifespan.

• Ensure research processes expedite the conduct of research and add to our understanding of the principles of advancing translational science

• Manage a dynamic program of informatics and computational functionality, training, consultation, and development for researchers to effectively use technology to advance their research

“Our strategy to achieve all this is three-fold,” said Dr. Sacco. “First, we need to reengineer our research environment by promoting connection and engagement with CTSI’s partners, and increasing quality and efficiency. Second, we need to expedite CTSI hub-wide research through advancing orchestration, master agreements, stakeholder engagement and team science. Third, we need to foster clinical/translational research workforce proficiency by strengthening research, cultural competency and study integrity.”

That’s a very tall order, but Dr. Sacco believes the world-class expertise and skills found across the Miller School is more than up to the job.

“I have the incredible support of our executive leadership team, consisting of Dr. Jonelle Wright, Dr. Dushyantha Jayaweera, Dr. W. Dalton Dietrich, Daru Ransford, and Sheela Dominguez,” Dr. Sacco said. “We have in impressive interdisciplinary group of program directors, CTSI central staff and committee members who all contribute to the success of our Institute. I may be the conductor, but I’m working with a great orchestra.”

Additional information is available on the CTSI website.

Tags: collaborative research, CTSA, culturalizing health sciences, Miami CTSI, team science