Pilot Funding Program Supports Innovation, Community Engagement, and Research Infrastructure

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 25, 2014) — Translational research — the process of moving a laboratory discovery into clinical applications — is a long and complex process requiring diverse expertise, ranging from basic science and regulatory affairs to participant recruitment and clinical application. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it can take more than a decade for a lab discovery to result in a new treatment, medical device, or prevention method. Yet, despite extensive training for basic scientists and clinicians in their specific fields, few researchers have the training, experience, and resources to successfully initiate and complete the "bench to bedside" process of translational studies.


Enter the Pilot Funding Program of the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS).  Established in 2006, the Pilot Program provides funding and multidisciplinary research support for preliminary and proof-of-concept studies in translational science.  The program received a significant boost in 2011 when the CCTS earned a $20 million Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) from the NIH. The CTSA program aims to improve human health by transforming research and training environments to enhance the efficiency and quality of clinical and translational research, and the Pilot Program is one of the primary methods through which the CCTS achieves this goal.  It provides far more than funding — awardees receive guidance and mentorship from protocol development to project evaluation. And the evolution of an integrated, multidisciplinary Pilot Program — involving not just CCTS but other UK centers and academic medical institutions — has enhanced research collaborations and infrastructure at UK and beyond.


"We are here to break research silos and to help our basic scientists, clinicians, and communities work together because there's no other way to truly advance science if different types of expertise don't collaborate. That's our mission," said Elodie Elayi, pilot program coordinator and director of research development at the CCTS.


The CCTS pilot program includes several different funding streams to support community engagement, drug development, high impact studies, novel methodologies, junior faculty, disease-specific research, and collaborative research. Priority areas include development of enabling technologies, new therapies, diagnostics, and novel cross-disciplinary collaborative programs that address the health and health care needs of the people of Appalachia.


The varied funding streams support diverse areas of research from investigators with varying levels of research experience. 


"For junior investigators it provides them an opportunity to launch their research program," said Tom Curry, director of the pilot program.  "For established investigators it provides them an avenue to explore new areas of investigation, to potentially generate findings for a high risk/high reward study which may not have a platform for funding through the normal channels, or to forge new collaborations to expand their research programs."


Regardless of the type of award, pilot investigators benefit from a robust support infrastructure designed to ensure that their study is successful. A multidisciplinary intake meeting with directors of relevant CCTS core services (such as biomedical informatics, participant recruitment, clinical services, or community engagement) serves as an immediate opportunity get expert feedback on protocols and budgets, anticipate challenges, and connect with needed resources.


"We don't just give money, but we also support investigators to overcome any issues," said Elayi. "We start the process on a positive note to be sure that everything is in place for the project to work."


Pilot investigators also have a face-to-face progress meeting halfway through their project to ensure that everything is on track and address any problems.


"When we first started doing this, we didn't have the face-to-face progress meeting, and we'd find out nine months in that there were problems," Elayi said.


The success of the CCTS Pilot Program led other UK centers, as well as outside institutions like Marshall University, to integrate their pilot programs with the CCTS pilot infrastructure. CCTS now operates a consolidated model that matches funds and manages the pilot programs of the Markey Cancer Center, Barnstable Brown Kentucky Diabetes and Obesity Center, Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, and Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center. A single request for applications is issued, and advertising of pilot opportunities is consolidated on the CCTS website. Then, a standing committee of 15 NIH-funded experts representing various departments/colleges reviews the proposals, providing NIH-format review and constructive feedback to applicants. This integrated approach leverages funding to increase the number of awards and enhances the overall research structure at UK and beyond by facilitating efficiency, standardization, transparency and collaboration.



And there's a significant return on investment: Since 2006, $2.2 million has been invested in the 90 studies supported by the pilot program, and 12 of the pilot projects subsequently received NIH awards that brought an additional $14 million in research funding to UK.


To further support innovative, community-engaged research, CCTS is currently reviewing applications for community-academic partnership stimulation, in conjunction with the Appalachian Translational Research Network (ATRN). The program will provide $100,000 over two years to a pilot project (to be announced in April) that develops or strengthens sustainable, joint partnerships between academic researchers and community stakeholders for translational research regarding health disparities in Appalachian Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia.


"This is the first time we've put out a call for proposals specifically for sustainable partnership," said Curry.  "The idea is that the infrastructure that will come out of the project will stay in place after the funding period."


It's also the first pilot funding opportunity from CCTS to require that projects have a community advisory board and that responsibility for the study is shared between the academic and community partners.


"So many projects fail because there's no penetration into the community. Collaboration is key," Elayi said.


Experts from partnering institutions — West Virginia University, Morehead State University, Ohio University — and community partners will form the review committee for this particular funding award.


 "Because of the diverse academic and community expertise, the reviews provided for by the committee can really help to mentor those investigators to improve the quality of project and have real impact in a community" said Curry. 


While only one project will be funded, Curry sees this funding opportunity as a building block for future collaborations as well.


"We'll fund a single project, but hopefully we'll have started a conversation between UK and community partners that will lead to other things," he said.


This ripple effect of the Pilot Program — across UK, other academic medical institutions, and communities — is perhaps its most profound hallmark, as it enhances the overall research enterprise and process to advance medical discoveries and improve lives.


"We've touched a lot of people's lives, and hopefully they can act as a catalyst within their departments and universities," Curry said.




MEDIA CONTACT: Mallory Powell, Mallory.powell@uky.edu