The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
Since 2016, the Advance Clinical and Translational Research program has been a statewide hub of research resources and services for clinical and translational investigators in Rhode Island. It’s based out of Brown University, but has a full partnership with the University of Rhode Island, hospitals owned by Care New England and Lifespan, the VA Providence Healthcare System, and the Rhode Island Quality Institute.
They’ve made it their mission to strengthen clinical research in the state, particularly in areas that address the “broad spectrum of health challenges” that Rhode Islanders consistently face. The program funds clinical and translational research, which starts in laboratories and eventually reaches clinical and community settings in diagnosis, treatment, and policy change stages. It also provides educational and professional resources to early-career researchers.
Recently, the program received a $19.9 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to fund its expansion into a second, five-year phase.
The program has “been a factor in seeding grants that have led us to a 186 percent increase in external research funding over the past few years. You can’t make leaps like that unless you have the infrastructure, training, and mentoring that Advance-CTR provides,” said Dr. Jack Elias, senior vice president for health affairs and dean of Brown’s medical school.
Dr. Sharon Rounds, the program’s director and associate dean for clinical affairs, said this funding will make a “significant difference” in Rhode Islanders’ care.
Q: What’s an example of a research project that came out of the program so far?
Rounds: Dr. Amin Zand Vakili [who has a joint appointment at Providence VA Medical Center and Brown] recently received an award from the Department of Veterans Affairs for his research on posttraumatic stress disorder. Zand Vakili used an MRI to link individual PTSD symptoms to specific brain networks. It could someday be used to inform targeted and individualized treatments for veterans.
Q: How will Advance-CTR spend this $20 million grant?
Rounds: In the first five years of the program, we focused on biostatistics, epidemiology, and biomedical informatics. For the second phase of funding, which we are entering now, we’ll continue to offer those, but now we have a new core, which is focused on community engagement and outreach.
We want to engage regular Rhode Islanders to help us decide what the priorities for research are and also help us design the research in such a way that the people are effectively able to both participate and learn from us from the results of the research.
Q: How are you going to be “engaging” with regular Rhode Islanders?
Rounds: We need input from community members. We understand that it’s a very different perspective when you’re dealing with health problems yourself as opposed to someone in a research laboratory or academic office in some ivory tower. We don’t always understand the needs and the impact of health issues among citizens in our own state.
So we’ll be collaborating with people and organizations that are already part of their communities. For example, we’re going to be working with Progreso Latino to help enhance COVID-19 testing and vaccinations in Latinx communities.
Q: And who is leading the community engagement and outreach core?
Rounds: It’s being led by Dr. Amy Nunn [director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute] and Dr. Charles Eaton [a board-certified family physician and clinical epidemiologist, and director of the primary care center at Care New England]. They’ll be developing a community advisory board that will provide their health concerns. That’s what we’re going to use as a guide to figure out what kind of research we are going to fund next.
Q: Dr. Elias’s own company, Ocean Biomedical, is Brown’s first bioscience spinoff and it’s about to go public. Are you hoping that this program could be the seed to help other biomed companies take off in Rhode Island?
Rounds: Commercializing the products of someone’s research is typically called the “valley of death.” It’s incredibly hard to bring ideas to the clinic. Advance-CTR has been strictly educational. But the point of the program is to support junior faculty that are really just starting their research careers. I’m hoping that down the line, with our workshops and training sessions, that we can help guide them to learn how to commercialize and begin the process of commercialization here.
So far, two of our participants have submitted a successful patent application and launched their startup, Circadian Positioning Systems. They had been researching the connections between the circadian timing system and sleep-awake patterns of children. They received funding from us for their research [to study how changes in school lighting systems might affect student performance].
Their company [launched in 2017] designs programmable lighting systems to manipulate biological sleep-wake rhythms in response to environments. They are now working with the Defense Department to help Marines manage their exhaustion during training.