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Joining Forces for Our Health

The Mountain West Clinical Translational Research Infrastructure Network helps 13 universities support the faculty and research that will improve human health in seven states.

Research  |  Jul 13, 2017  |  By Pashtana Usufzy , Raegen Pietrucha

There’s a reason for the phrase “There’s strength in numbers,” and it’s especially true with respect to research. In the last four years, UNLV and 12 other universities in seven Mountain West (MW) states have had the opportunity to team up in new ways and find out how much they could accomplish together, thanks to a five-year, $20 million multistate grant from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Institutional Development Award program for the MW Clinical Translational Research Infrastructure Network, or CTR-IN.

The year 2013 marked the beginning of the MW CTR-IN, which has three primary objectives: First, work together to further build the type of infrastructure and culture at all of the participating universities that leads to improved research output. Next, increase the quality and quantity of NIH grant applications in clinical and translational research to improve the rate of success in obtaining this funding — traditionally lower in the MW region compared to other regions of the nation. Finally, use the obtained funding to accelerate research discoveries that will result in the improvement of human health across all seven participating states: Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

“The CTR-IN is providing unique opportunities for junior faculty at our partner institutions to develop their clinical and translational research programs to the level of national competitiveness,” said Carl Reiber, UNLV senior vice provost, who was instrumental in the development of the program. The effort is now led by Dr. Parvesh Kumar, UNLV School of Medicine senior associate dean for clinical research and cancer program director. “Having toured many of our institutions with Dr. Kumar, it is apparent that the CTR-IN funds are supporting highly competitive science projects that will play an important role in the lives of many people across the United States.”

As the host university, UNLV is responsible not only for ensuring that the primary research objectives are met, but for fiscally managing and administering the grant as well. The opportunity is massive on several levels, given that it is the largest federally funded grant UNLV has received to date and involves awarding funds to multiple universities.

The benefits of the CTR-IN have been broad and widespread as the program intended. In addition to supporting several pilot grants for in-depth research projects, the funding now has also enabled the development of new multi-site research projects, a mentoring program, educational training videos, biostatistical support, and more to faculty members within the participating universities. UNLV has been the proud host of several CTR-IN-sponsored grant-writing workshops, which teach faculty throughout the MW region how to write grants for NIH and other federal funding agencies. The CTR-IN also facilitates an “Advance to Funding” (ATF) program, which is a mock study section providing specific expertise and written feedback on how to improve NIH and other federal grant applications prior to submission.

“The CTR-IN offers the unique opportunity to positively and significantly impact the careers of faculty members at 13 major MW state universities by providing support not just for their research, but also for their professional and career development,” Kumar said.

The success rates of the CTR-IN have been tremendous thus far. The ATF program has generated a 13 percent NIH funding rate and a 27 percent NIH scoring rate on the submitted grants, both of which are higher than the national average funding and scoring rates. And the 69 pilot grants awarded so far totaling about $4.33 million have generated 35 extramural awards totaling an additional $13.9 million in extramural funding — a rate of return of 320 percent.

“Faculty members’ ability to secure such a large amount of extramural funding demonstrates the difference the CTR-IN is making at the participating universities,” Kumar said. “It’s spurring further research infrastructure development, which is one of our major objectives of this grant. The opportunity to help junior faculty obtain this extramural grant funding so their research can make an impact on the residents of the Mountain West region is truly a privilege and a noble cause.”

At UNLV specifically, the grant has boosted campus research, as eight of those 69 pilot grants awarded so far have gone to the university. Among the recipients is assistant professor Yu Kuang in the School of Allied Health Sciences. An award of $82,500 over roughly nine months bolstered Kuang’s research, which aims to determine which combination of molecular imaging and biomarkers can provide early insight into a patient’s response to chemotherapy.

Other pilot grant beneficiaries include Qing Wu of the UNLV Nevada Institute of Personalized Medicine and department of environmental and occupational health, who was awarded $70,389 in funding from the MW CTR-IN program. Wu’s work, titled “A Pilot Study to Develop Personalized Reference Values of Bone Mineral Density,” is a precursor to a larger NIH grant proposal regarding the development of a more accurate predictor of osteopathic fractures in white women.

“Larger federal awards are really contingent on having proof of concept," said Mary Croughan, UNLV's incoming vice president for research and economic development. "Pilot grants like those offered through the CTR-IN enable researchers to obtain the critical preliminary data and evidence of productive collaboration that demonstrate proof of concept, which is why these types of grants are so critical.”

“CTR-IN has helped our health researchers in so many ways,” said Carolyn Yucha, chair of the CTR-IN Internal Advisory Committee, acting vice president for research and economic development at UNLV, and dean of the school of nursing. “The infrastructure and educational programming has changed UNLV’s research culture and increased our ability to apply for larger federal funding. These benefits have extended across all of our 13 partner universities as well, whom we’ve enjoyed collaborating with in new ways, thanks to this program.”

On the docket for year five of the CTR-IN grant, which ends its current run in June 2018: several more pilot grants focusing on health disparities research — and an additional multisite research project, Kumar says.

And once this CTR-IN grant has concluded? In addition to resubmitting for another CTR-IN grant in the fall of 2017, Kumar is considering co-funding opportunities with the NIH’s Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence and IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence, with the goal of expanding further into translational research.

“CTR-IN is an opportunity for all of the involved universities to really help their communities,” he said. “The objective of all this research funding has always been to improve the health of people living in the Mountain West region, and we will continue working toward this goal.”

The benefits of CTR-IN pilot grants extend beyond the research projects they support. Here are some of the ways this critical funding has helped the researchers who’ve received them.

Pilot grant awardee: Blakely Brown, professor, department of health and human performance
Institution: University of Montana
CTR-IN pilot grant project: Developing and pilot-testing an after-school and home-based childhood obesity prevention intervention
Impact beyond grant project: Better prepared to obtain additional research funding

“The CTR-IN grant program has increased my skills in managing awards and working more closely with my office of sponsored research programs. During the last phase of the CTR-IN pilot grant, we applied for an NIH R13 grant titled ‘Communities at Play,’ which we were awarded. It’s a three-year grant that helps us build capacity and more community collaborations for the ‘Generations Health Project: An after-school and home-based childhood obesity prevention intervention’ as well enhance academic and community partnerships for preventing obesity in native and non-native children on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Since the CTR-IN grant, our UM-Flathead Indian Reservation partnership has received a two-year USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) strengthening grant titled ‘Growing Strong Generations.’”

Pilot grant awardee: Xiaomeng “Mona” Xu, assistant professor of experimental psychology
Institution: Idaho State University
CTR-IN pilot grant project: Understanding the role of self-expansion in physical activity
Impact beyond grant project: Mentorship that resulted in higher productivity

“The mentorship piece of CTR-IN was something I wasn’t particularly aware of when I applied, but it was profoundly impactful. CTR-IN provided the funding for my distance mentor, Claudio Nigg from the University of Hawaii, to come to ISU and meet in person. Because our mentoring relationship was working so well, we ended up doing a poster and symposia talking about that mentoring experience. I’ve been incredibly productive since I received this pilot grant, producing a lot of publications and presentations and receiving some internal grants that have helped me keep my research going. I will be going up for tenure this fall, five years into my first faculty position.”

Pilot grant awardee: Jacqueline Snow, assistant professor of psychology
Institution: University of Nevada, Reno
CTR-IN pilot grant project: How human food decisions are influenced by real object versus image displays
Impact beyond grant project: Practice with grant administration and management

“The CTR-IN has helped me become better at operating and managing projects — from navigating UNR’s office of sponsored projects to calculating F&A (facilities and administrative costs), purchasing equipment, and annual reporting. This has highlighted the importance of effective time management to maintain research productivity along with my other academic responsibilities. As a result of the funding from the CTR-IN, I now have a well-functioning lab consisting of five Ph.D. students and two postdocs. In sum, the CTR-IN has provided critical support that has allowed me to extend our research into the translational domain, and we wouldn’t be where we are without it.”

Pilot grant awardee: Susan Tavernier, assistant professor of nursing
Institution: Idaho State University
CTR-IN pilot grant project: The patient voice in health care
Impact beyond grant project: Led to involvement in more research projects

“The CTR-IN grant has allowed me to build my research portfolio. I was awarded funding for a companion study through the Institute of Translational Health Sciences (ITHS) Rising Star Award. The two studies combined provide the preliminary data I need to submit an R01 grant application. I’m also the evaluator on a $1.5 million Health Resources and Services Administration grant now. As a direct result of a conversation about my CTR-IN pilot work that I had with a colleague who leads the nursing subcommittee of the Southwest Oncology Group, I was invited to be the nursing coordinator for one of their studies.”