We are in a time of change for University of Utah Health, but also a time of tremendous opportunity. As the new Interim Associate Vice President for Research, I am excited to build upon the growth and momentum that we have established in recent years. I will work to help us come together to set our direction for the future. As we contemplate what the future holds, it is worth reflecting on what we have achieved.
Thanks to the dedication of staff, faculty and leaders across U of U Health, our research enterprise continues to thrive and grow. Our faculty are making exciting new discoveries that are transforming our understanding of health and disease. For example, Stefan Pulst, MD, chair of neurology at U of U Health, took a significant step this past year toward combatting two degenerative brain diseases-ataxia and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
Danny Chou, PhD, and Jared Rutter, PhD, are tackling one of health care’s biggest challenges through our new Diabetes Initiative. The research efforts supported by this initiative are focused on making life easier and safer for diabetics. Dr. Chou and his team are working on faster-acting insulin and other novel ways to control blood sugar. Maintaining blood sugar levels improves outcomes and provides peace of mind for parents of children who have T1D. Dr. Rutter, co-director of the Diabetes and Metabolism Center, has significantly expanded the understanding of human metabolism, which has profound implications in treatments for cancer, heart disease and other serious metabolism-related health problems.
University of Utah faculty also are making advances that will improve treatment of disease, such as the work from Tom Lane, PhD, professor of pathology, who received a $9M Multiple Sclerosis Collaborative Research Center Grant, the only one awarded by the Multiple Sclerosis Society in 2017. The grant will help stimulate collaboration and interaction in MS research among independent investigators, strengthen the ties between basic and clinical research, and stimulate recruitment of researchers from other fields into MS research.
This summer the American Heart Association (AHA) awarded U of U Health investigators $3.7 million to conduct collaborative research to prevent and treat congenital heart disease. This multidisciplinary team brought together experts from Pediatrics, Genetics, Ob/Gyn, and Population Health Sciences, and was one of only four awardees across the country. This team will begin innovating new ways of exploring causes of congenital heart disease and delivering this complex information to families to allow for better-informed medical decisions.
University of Utah Health has been recognized in the national press for the works of Deborah Neklason, Utah Genome Project Program director, and her mentor Randall Burt. Featured in The Atlantic, “What Mormon Family Trees Tell Us About Cancer,” the article tells the story of the Utah Population Database and how it is helping to prevent cancer across the world. The Utah Genome Project is currently in Phase II of their multi-year plan for the Utah Genome Center. Phase II is focused on providing more resources in sequencing, analysis, functional studies and translation through partnerships with ARUP and the College of Pharmacy as UGP works to discover more genes and collaborate to develop new drugs and diagnostics to prevent and treat diseases.
We have launched a new Department of Population Health Sciences, which is opening up exciting new opportunities for research in health services to transform the practice and delivery of health care. In 2015, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) awarded Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) its Comprehensive Cancer Center status, the highest designation possible. This designation was given in large part due to the ground-breaking research by the HCI faculty.
We should also celebrate the excellence of U of U Health’s faculty as leaders and innovators. Since 2010, three faculty have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (Wes Sundquist, PhD, Brenda Bass, PhD, and Dana Carroll, PhD). Two faculty were elected to the National Academy of Medicine (Mario Cappechi, PhD and Vivian Lee, MD, PhD, MBA). Two faculty joined the ranks of Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators (Jared Rutter, PhD, and Jody Rosenblatt, PhD). And a new H.A. and Edna Benning Presidential Endowed Chair was added (Nels Elde, PhD), among numerous honors to additional faculty. The talent and potential of many junior facultyhas been recognized by prestigious awards, highlighting our investment in the best and brightest to carry us forward.
There has been a steady increase in research funding for U of U Health – from $229M in FY13 up to $281M for FY17 – which has been driven by an impressive increase in proposal submissions in recent years. Our ability to accelerate high-impact research initiatives has been made possible by generous support from the Miller Foundation to support the Diabetes and Wellness Initiative, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to support the Utah Genome Project. These investments will enable us to work across U of U Health to allow new discoveries to address challenging problems.
How do we maintain our momentum and set our sights for the future? We have succeeded by collaborating and working together, by focusing on excellence and innovation, and by investing in and fostering talent. Utah is a place to explore big ideas, where there is room to take risk, and where there is opportunity to connect to work beyond that of the individual. This creates a unique and exciting environment for discovery and impact. We will be capturing the ideas, energy and momentum of our faculty and trainees to propel us forward. We can continue to transform science and tackle the most challenging problems of medicine.
In the coming weeks, I will be working with our newly formed Health Sciences Research Council to assess our priorities and goals. We will be engaging with faculty and leaders across the schools and colleges to set our plans for the future and focus our efforts on a shared vision. I look forward to those conversations, and welcome ideas and input as we move forward.
Monica Vetter, PhD
Guest blogger Monica Vetter is Interim Vice Dean for Research within the School of Medicine and Interim Associate Vice President for Research for Health Sciences. Dr. Vetter currently serves as chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, a post she will retain throughout this interim appointment. She has been a member of the faculty at the University of Utah since 1996 in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, with an adjunct appointment in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.