U.Va. launches THRIV program

Translational health research institute facilitates scientific collaboration, data accessibility

The Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia officially launched in January 2017 aims to provide a platform to expand cooperation and accessibility of health research data at the University and beyond.

Sandra Burks, THRIV’s program director, said the idea for THRIV can be credited to David Wilkes, the Dean of the School of Medicine.

“Dr. Wilkes recognized that we needed to beef up the resources and the strategies that we were doing to help facilitate more interdisciplinary translational research across the University and with our academic colleagues around the state,” Burks said. “He committed the resources that were needed to start this new research institute as a front door for researchers to come to.”

Translational research involves moving research from its earliest phases all the way to a useful application. The early stages often include research done in a bench laboratory, while the last phases could be research in clinical trials or at the population level. Data sharing between those phases is integral to translational research. THRIV will help to facilitate collaboration and cooperation between the scientists at different levels of health research.

“What’s been involved in the setup phase is trying to do a little bit of a strategic analysis to see what resources we have already … And then listening to our researchers about where there were weaknesses or areas of opportunity for us,” Burks said. “What we’ve been doing now … Is really now beginning to create new structure where structure doesn’t exist or to create bridges between teams or resources that didn’t exist.”

The National Institutes of Health provides multi-million dollar Clinical Translational Science Awards to innovative development programs that create efficient ways to make science data applicable to the health fields. THRIV exists outside of CTSA, but it will apply for a CTSA as soon as the program is successfully up and running.

“Certainly, if we got funding from the CTSA, that’s a great thing and it would benefit us at [the University] and might really help us to move it up a notch,” Burks said. “If we got funding from the NIH, that would be transformative for us to really do something even stronger. But THRIV is something that the institution needs regardless of whether we get a CTSA award.”

The CTSA program has several tasks it wants to complete in the future, Burks said.

“One of [the five CTSA program] goals is to train the next generation of researchers,” Burks said. “A second goal is about collaboration and engagement. So, a lot of what we’re trying to do in THRIV is building bridges, building connections between people. A third goal of the CTSA program is integration … To figure out how to do a better job of moving things along that pipeline.”

According to the NIH website, the fourth goal is creating innovative processes that increase the efficiency and quality of translational research.

“The last goal for the CTSA program is about informatics, and that’s one of the primary goals for THRIV,” Burks said. “The tagline for THRIV is ‘using data to improve health.’ And that tagline … That’s what research is — it’s all about the data. But that’s something that we are really capitalizing on here at U.Va.”

Informatics — the science of data processing and packaging for future use — is at the core of THRIV’s success. Dr. Donald Brown, the director of the Data Science Institute and co-director of THRIV, is involved in the informatics and data infrastructure that will be used to make THRIV easily accessible.

The collection of data that THRIV seeks to create will make it easy for researchers to use pre-existing data to build on the expertise of various health fields.

“We’ll take advantage of all the research data that we have that our researchers at the University have access to,” Brown said. “And it could incorporate data that’s outside of [the University], as well, that are in participating institutions … We’ll be taking the data sets and the data that we have available, and we’ll be putting a structure over it that makes it easier to use.

Though THRIV is currently in its early stages, undergraduate opportunities are a possibility for the future.

“One of the ways that we’re [creating opportunities for undergraduate students] is some of the partnerships with the School of Nursing and the Curry School of Education because they have a lot of programs that are already doing research that involves undergraduate students,” Burks said. “I would say we are inviting undergrad students who are interested in translational health research to reach out and express where they’re interested, and we’re looking for ways to partner them with researchers or to capitalize on their enthusiasm.”

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