Moving Discovery from the Lab to the Community

The University of Kentucky Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) announced in October that it has received a four-year, $19.8 million Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) from the National Institutes of Health. CTSA grants support innovative solutions to improve the efficiency, quality, and impact of translating scientific discoveries into interventions or applications that improve the health of individuals and communities.

UK officials were joined by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Congressman Andy Barr for the announcement.

This is the second CTSA grant that the UK CCTS has competed for and received. In 2011, the CCTS received a five-year, $20 million award. These grants are extremely competitive and place UK in elite company. Other institutions funded in this round include Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, Rockefeller University and UCLA.

Additionally, UK is one of only 21 institutions in the country with federally-designated research centers in translational science, aging and cancer.

“While this trifecta of competitive grants positions us to recruit the brightest scientific minds of our generation and host potentially transformational clinical trials, it is the impact on community that is the heart of the CTSA and, indeed, our work as a University for Kentucky,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “Our capacity to engage at the intersection of research disciplines – which we translate from the cellular-level, to the community, and to the Commonwealth – will be emboldened by this highly competitive award.”

The mission of UK CCTS is to accelerate the process of translating scientific discoveries into tangible applications for individual and community health, with particular focus on health disparities in Kentucky and Appalachia. A "disease agnostic" center, the CCTS does not focus on one particular disease but supports research on an array of diseases across the lifespan in order to quicken the process of moving new science, treatments and tools to the patient bedside or into communities.

"The CCTS has focused our work over the last five years to create a robust spectrum of resources and expertise that enhances translational research at UK, within communities, and through a network of regional research collaborations. We are also committed to training the upcoming generation of physician scientists and researchers who will make the scientific discoveries of the future " said Dr. Philip A. Kern, director of the UK CCTS.

Senator McConnell, who contacted NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins on behalf of the University, said, “I was pleased to work with University of Kentucky President Dr. Capilouto and faculty and staff to help secure this federal assistance. The competitive grant we are celebrating today is not only great news for UK and its students and researchers, but it is great news for the entire Commonwealth which benefits from the critical health research undertaken by UK and the healthcare provided by the University and its partners. 

“UK’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science administers multi-level, proactive training which equips health care providers to not only address current health issues facing my constituents, but also to create innovative ways to improve the lives and health of Kentuckians. UK has long made it a priority to undertake important research specific to Kentucky and the Appalachian region’s population, which has resulted in better health care access and outcomes for my rural constituents in Eastern Kentucky.”

Since receiving its first CTSA grant in 2011, the CCTS has made significant investments to transform the research enterprise at UK and has established itself as the CTSA hub for Central Appalachia.

“The awarding of this competitive grant is a testament to UK’s national leadership in training the next generation of researchers and engaging the community in collaborative efforts to improve public health,” said Barr. “I am proud to support and to have voted for increased funding for the National Institutes of Health because programs such as the Center for Clinical and Translational Science have a tremendous return on investment in terms of improving outcomes for patients, lowering costs, and expanding access to care."

The CCTS provides critical research infrastructure, funding and support services; facilitates team science and a regional research network; engages with communities for research and training to address health needs; and prepares the upcoming generation of clinical and translational researchers. These efforts integrate UK's tripartite mission to provide the best clinical care, conduct innovative research to improve health, and educate the health care and research workforce.

“In order to provide the most advanced care for Kentuckians, we need to be active in developing new treatments and diagnostics, as well as training top-notch physicians and researchers who can carry on the processes of discovery," said Dr. Michael Karpf, UK executive vice president for health affairs. "Our focused efforts and investment in translational team science mean we have more clinical trials available to our patients, and we’re able to bring the best and most innovative science to their care."

UK's research enterprise has benefited from a multitude of CCTS efforts. The CCTS pilot funding program, which supports innovative, early-stage research, has provided $4 million in awards which have yielded $38.5 million in competitive extramural research funding at UK — a return on investment of more than 8 to 1. These pilot awards support diverse research studies, from new treatments for Parkinson's disease to increasing lung cancer screening in Appalachia.

In order to catalyze team science, CCTS has funded 100 multidisciplinary team sciences projects and recently partnered with the College of Medicine and the UK vice president for research to establish the new Multidisciplinary Value Program, which creates multidisciplinary research teams and new clinical trials at UK.

The CCTS has also created a significant infrastructure of research support services to assist investigators across the spectrum research, with targeted investments in specific research capacities. It has invested $1.2 million to enhance UK's imaging infrastructure and research through career development, pilot awards, and equipment. These investments resulted in patents for optical imaging equipment for breast cancer diagnosis, and novel MRI techniques to assess ACL and hip joint repair and to measure cardiac scar tissue in patients with kidney failure.

The CCTS also created UK's first biospecimen bank, which makes biological samples available to researchers. More than 18,000 patients have consented to participate.

A new Drug Discovery and Development core through the UK Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation was also funded in part by the CCTS. This investment led to an exclusive UK Natural Products Repository, composed of pure natural products deriving from unique environments in Appalachian Kentucky. Collection site areas included active and abandoned coal mines and reclamation sites, thermal vents from longstanding underground coal mine fires and deep well drilling.  Compounds from these unprecedented collection sites are purified and tested for novel metabolic potential as new drugs. 

CCTS efforts and investments in biomedical informatics have greatly enhanced UK's research enterprise as well. A robust, cutting-edge research warehouse of clinical data from UK and state partners, called the Enterprise Data Trust, enables the use of health data for discovery and improved patient care. The CCTS was also active in recruiting UK's new, expert biomedical informatics team, and facilitated the development of the new Institute for Biomedical Informatics.

"The UK Strategic Plan for Research focuses on support of outstanding research that improves the lives of those in the Commonwealth.  We couldn’t achieve these important goals without the support of programs like the CCTS. To bridge the gap between basic and clinical research, we need a specialized infrastructure that facilitates translational research,” said Lisa Cassis, Ph.D., UK vice president for research. “This program provides that infrastructure. This grant is also vitally important to the new multidisciplinary research building, currently under construction, that will focus on health disparities facing Kentuckians."

Through partnerships with Kentucky communities and through its role as the CTSA hub for Central Appalachia, the impact of the CCTS also extends far beyond UK's campus. The CCTS is the founding member of the Appalachian Translational Research Network (ATRN), which facilitates research collaborations with East Tennessee State University, Ohio State University, Ohio University, the University of Cincinnati, and West Virginia University. Marshall University, also an ATRN member, receives sub-award of UK's CTSA grant to bolster research capacity and support pilot research at its institution.

Another key initiative from the UK CCTS is the Community Leadership of Kentucky, which provides training and funding to enhance the capacity of community leaders and organizations to address health challenges. A series of pilot and mini-grants also support community-based research and health interventions.

Preparing the next generation of translational researchers and physician scientists is an additional pillar of the CCTS mission. Through its career development program, 15 junior faculty have received research funding and mentored research training; nine have since earned independent research awards, and six are current awardees. The CCTS additionally supports students in doctoral clinical and translational science training programs.

Over its next four years of funding, the CCTS will build upon its work to develop infrastructure, enhance translational team science, engage with communities, and confront regional health disparities.

"Addressing the serious and complex health challenges in Kentucky and Appalachia requires multipronged, interdisciplinary approaches that leverage the strengths of our collective efforts," said Kern. "As we look to our work in the coming years, we will build upon our infrastructure and continue to stimulate innovative team science across a broad spectrum of disciplines with focus on the important health needs of communities. We look forward to continued participation with national CTSA consortium, in partnership with many other outstanding institutions, to represent Central Appalachia in the quest to help solve the many health problems faced by our nation."

The heart of the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences is the impact it has on our community. It strengthens our role as a University FOR Kentucky.