Translational Research Hub at BU Gets $38.3 Million Renewal from NIH
A version of this article originally appeared in The Brink.
The importance of translating science rapidly from laboratory bench to clinical bedside has never been more apparent, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the researchers who are racing to understand and combat the virus’ spread. Now, further boosting Boston University’s ability to move research science into the real world—and provide junior investigators with start-up funds and infrastructure to begin studying promising but untested new ideas—BU’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (BU CTSI) has received $38.3 million in renewal funding at a critical moment for global health, science, and research.
The funding comes from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). BU clinical trials that could immediately benefit from the funding are those studying antibody testing, virus detection, and how COVID-19 is affecting individuals differently.
Richard Saitz, professor and chair of community health sciences, is a co–principal investigator of the new $38.3 million grant, alongside David Center, director of BU CTSI, and Megan Bair-Merritt, a professor of pediatrics at the BU School of Medicine and chair of the women’s leadership advisory council for the BU Medical Group. All three are also physicians at Boston Medical Center (BMC), BU’s teaching hospital.
“This renewal, which will fund CTSI for another five years, comes in a timely fashion to help us invest in coronavirus-related science, epidemiology, and clinical research,” says Center, who has led BU CTSI since it launched in 2008. “We are well-poised to help fund translational research in COVID-19 because we already have an infrastructure that expedites the ability of BU’s investigators to get moving on studies and identify patients to enroll in new clinical trials. We’ve made an enormous difference getting patients into [COVID-19-related] clinical trials.”
BU CTSI supports researchers at BU and BMC, which as the city’s safety net hospital has been shouldering a lion’s share of coronavirus cases since the local number of patients began to surge in early April. BU CTSI works with teams on both BU’s Charles River and Medical Campuses, partnering with researchers to secure funding and design studies with translation in mind.
A major aspect of the BU CTSI is its support of junior investigators who have not yet received external funding for their research ideas, providing them with salary and grant money to kick-start their research to a point where federal and foundation funders are more likely to see the promise.
“Our goal is to support the careers of researchers overall, including a focus on supporting the trajectories of early career investigators,” says Bair-Merritt. Over the last 10 years, she says, the funding landscape has become more difficult.
The institute also helps research teams design and manage their statistical methods and data analyses, providing software tools to collect, organize, and store experimental data. Recently, BU CTSI consultants helped a clinical team get approval for a coronavirus-related clinical study within just 24 hours’ time.
During the current COVID-19 pandemic, BU CTSI has taken on the role of “organizer, clearinghouse, and facilitator for a wide range of COVID-19-related research studies that need to be started urgently,” Saitz says. “The institute is providing substantial pilot awards, helping to avoid duplication, connecting investigators with funding and each other, and helping get rapid institutional review board review.”
Through its NCATS funding, of which the institute has received more than $115 million to date, BU CTSI also acts as a connector between BU/BMC and more than 50 other translational science hubs across the country. It partners scientists with complementary expertise to move research forward. Since 2008, BU CTSI has also helped generate almost $50 million in additional funding opportunities.
Twice a year, BU CTSI runs the Career Development Award Grant Writing Course. “Early career faculty investigators learn how to write a competitive career development proposal,” Bair-Merritt says. “This is a particularly important time to support researchers as it is often the first large grant that they have written.”
In the current coronavirus crisis and across so many other health challenges, Saitz says that BU CTSI’s greatest strength lies in its service to advance “research that will actually improve health, by engaging the entire BU and BMC community of researchers and beyond.”