During 2019, the University School of Medicine met multiple milestones. The Federal Drug Association approved an artificial pancreas for Type I diabetics developed over the past decade at the University. Another team of researchers discovered the protein that allows the bacteria species Geobacter sulfurreducens to conduct electricity, which could have implications for biomedical device development.
While commonalities between these projects may not be immediately apparent, they all are similar in that they have the same major source of funding — the National Institutes of Health, a federal agency that conducts and supports medical research. In the past year, NIH awarded the University a record amount of funding — $146.3 million, a $25.4 million increase from fiscal year 2018.
David S. Wilkes, dean of the School of Medicine, attributed the University’s growing number of approved grant proposals from NIH, as well as the more than $400 million the School of Medicine received overall this year, to a targeted approach to research that focuses on specific areas of study. Emphasizing depth over sheer breadth, Wilkes claimed, served the School of Medicine well in terms of finances and achievements.
“We put plans in place to reinvigorate the research enterprise at the medical school,” Wilkes said. “That was in part through finding specific areas of research to invest in, investing in current faculty and also making strategic hires of additional faculty.”
Faculty and staff implemented these new strategies at the School of Medicine nearly five years ago when they committed to promoting seven core biological and medical fields — cancer, cardiovascular medicine, metabolic disorders, neurosciences, organ transplant, precision medicine and regenerative medicine. In each of these key disciplines, researchers conduct basic, clinical and translational studies to learn how the body functions and develop novel treatments and therapies.
“We’re hoping for discoveries that enhance the care of patients, the way healthcare is delivered or novel techniques for diagnosing disease and testing how medicines work,” Wilkes said. “We’re hoping for a better understanding of biology as it relates to human conditions.”
One of the beneficiaries of numerous NIH grants is Boris Kovatchev — director of the University Center for Diabetes Technology and a pioneer on the artificial pancreas, a device thousands already rely on for life-sustaining insulin. When explaining why he has stayed at the University for 28 years, Kovatchev noted that the University’s Center for Diabetes Technology is well-respected when it comes to diabetes technology development. He also expressed gratitude for several colleagues at the University — including Marc Breton, Sue Brown, Mark DeBoer and Stacy Anderson — for their expertise on Type I diabetes treatments and the funding from NIH they contribute to the program.
“When I came to U.Va. a long time ago, U.Va. already had a very strong endocrinology and diabetes program,” Kovatchev said. “Now, the U.Va. Center for Diabetes Technology is probably number one in the world.”
Initial funding for Type I diabetes research for Kovatchev started over 20 years ago, and for almost 12 years, NIH has continuously awarded Kovatchev and his team grants. In 2016, they received over $12 million for clinical trials of the artificial pancreas. Not only did this sum significantly surpass the average amount of NIH research project grants in fiscal year 2018 — $535,239 — but it is also the largest given by NIH for research on Type I diabetes.
“NIH has special diabetes funding, and that has been a reliable source of funding for specific areas of research related to Type I diabetes,” Kovatchev said. “They have been our major source.”
Similarly, contributions from NIH subsidize the work of Edward H. Egelman, professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics. Along with other scientists from Yale University and the University of California, Irvine, in 2019, Egelman discovered the structure that enables certain bacteria species to conduct electricity.
While it was commonly accepted that bacteria transported electrons via filamentous appendages that can cause infections, or pili, researchers found that distinct filaments encase molecules with metal and compose a “nanowire” to facilitate electron transfer. Egelman cited recent and past NIH grants as essential for this type of research, as well as for exploring novel topics that led him to unexpected conclusions.
“I am very fortunate to have had sustained funding from the NIH for almost all of my career, and this has allowed my research to go off in unanticipated directions,” Egelman said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “The point is that with fundamental or basic research we never quite know what the consequences will be … but my NIH funding allowed me to pursue these studies that may have direct implications for everything from nanoelectronics to biomedical engineering.”
NIH continues to support a variety of ongoing endeavors at the University. For example, researchers at the University and Virginia Tech recently accepted $3.4 million to develop a miniature model of a lymph node they hope will aid future studies of the organ. The integrated Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia, an initiative throughout the state to connect clinical researchers, disbursed $200,000 from NIH to four multi-institutional research projects — several of which involve University faculty — in its initial effort to sponsor combined biomedical and data-driven projects, such as the use of ultrasounds to help treat depression.
At the start of a new decade, the challenge for the School of Medicine, Wilkes said, is not necessarily if there will be adequate monetary resources for research, but rather if there will be adequate laboratory space. With a record year behind them, University researchers are looking forward now, as research expansion is likely on the horizon.