U nabs $51M for health research

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2011 - 9:01 AM

The National Institutes of Health grant is the largest the university has received.

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Bruce Blazar, director of the U’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, said the 'transformative grant’ reduces budget cut impacts.

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The University of Minnesota has landed a five-year, $51 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that one top researcher described Tuesday as "transformative" in its potential to push new medical treatments more quickly from concept into the hands of caregivers.

The grant is one of five worth $200 million given out this year by the federal government's biggest medical research agency, and the largest the U has ever received that can used be solely by the university.

The money aims to help campus researchers and health care experts across a wide range of disciplines share data and findings with universities across the country. A portion of the money, for example, could go toward creating and maintaining nationwide databases, which could be used to study correlations among diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.

The thinking is that the more people contribute information and parse databases looking for patterns, the better the odds of a breakthrough.

"It's a big deal in part because it's a large grant," said Dr. Aaron Friedman, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Medical School. "It's also a big deal because it puts us in a community of places around the country that have these [grants]. To be 'in the club,' so to speak, is quite important."

The funds also will be used to do things such as get high school students interested in new fields, such as biomedical informatics. Or to work with community groups to figure out why health care remains out of reach for some. The U could also work with businesses, hospitals and even insurance companies to try to improve health care.

"This is a transformative grant for us," said Dr. Bruce Blazar, director of the U's Clinical and Translational Science Institute, which received the award. "The hope is, nationwide, that these organizations will learn to work together to rapidly and efficiently solve important problems that would be very difficult to do from individual institutions. That's really the essence of what this is."

By involving everyone from a researcher peering into a microscope in Los Angeles to a family doctor working on nutrition in Winona, Minn., the NIH aims to bridge the gap that often exists between scientists and medical practitioners. Blazar acknowledged that the potential uses of the hefty grant seem "nebulous," in part, because "we're changing a culture. And that takes time."

Another focus will be on creating universal systems to carry out clinical trails. That could includes developing standards, coordinating with patient safety and oversight boards, and working with hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

Dan Carr, CEO of The Collaborative, said the grant could further the tradition of innovation that led to Minnesota's biggest success stories, such as Medtronic and AGA Medical.

"Minnesota is fertile ground for commercializing medical technology of all sorts," said Carr, whose group links entrepreneurs with investors. "The ability for us to get a little more horsepower from the U to ramp that up would be wonderful. We'd all like to see more great companies come out of university-led efforts."

The award comes at a welcome time for the university, as many of its programs are on the chopping block because of the state's $5 billion budget shortfall.

"It won't solve the budget crisis because there clearly are a wide range of impacts that the budget has on the university," Blazar said. "But it will jump-start opportunities we wouldn't have had without the funding. Clearly this would have been very difficult to manage in the way we want if we didn't have this funding."

The award is the final installment of a broader effort begun by the NIH in 2006 to inject cash into the nation's academic health centers to bring research out of isolation and spark new breakthroughs.

The University of Minnesota joins 60 institutions in 30 states and the District of Columbia to have received the NIH grants totaling about $2.4 billion over five years. The U's award is among larger ones, which have ranged from $20 million to $117 million, Blazar said.

Other recipients this year were: Penn State University's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Kansas Medical Center; and the University of Kentucky, Lexington.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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