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Medical research led by UB to get a $21.7 million infusion

A new medical device to lower the risk of infection from joint replacement surgery. More effective ways to treat a concussion. New methods to extend the lives of those with cystic fibrosis.

If these medical breakthroughs come to pass, it will be partly because of an effort led on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to push the pace of health research.

The National Institutes of Health announced Monday that it has awarded nearly $22 million more to continue the momentum of this five-year-old effort.

“This is a big deal. Nationally, these are very competitive grants,” said Dr. Timothy Murphy, principal investigator for the regional award, a SUNY distinguished professor, and senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The grant encourages translational research – efforts across university departments and specialties – to boost innovation, speed development of medical treatments, and reduce health disparities in poor, rural and minority communities.

Sixty health research powerhouses across the nation shared in the roughly $500 million in grants, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Yale.

All are encouraged to work together. Yale, the University of Rochester and UB have focused on encouraging more people of color to participate in clinical research trials, the backbone of medical advances.

“We know that clinical research is associated with better health care,” Murphy said, “and so we have developed some novel approaches and have had some early successes engaging people who've not been otherwise engaged. This is a NIH priority.”

Such promise is vital. Roughly three-quarters of all research studies never reach completion, often because of a lack of research participants, Murphy said.

“It’s also estimated that from the time that a first drug target is identified to FDA approval takes an average of 14 years and costs $1 billion to $2 billion – with a 95% failure rate of those initial targets,” he said.

The latest UB five-year, $21.7 million Clinical and Translational Science Award aims to improve those odds with an approach that pushes into more communities and spreads studies beyond one region. The grant comes from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, part of the NIH.

Early results have been promising. From 2015 through 2018, the number of clinical trial participants in the region has climbed threefold, to more than 3,500, said Dr. Michael E. Cain, vice president for health sciences at UB and dean of the medical school.

The number of underrepresented minorities rose from 27% five years ago to 37% today, a trend Cain predicted will continue thanks to the new award.

Continuing to recruit patients who experience health disparities is important for well-being across the Buffalo Niagara region because it has become a microcosm of what the nation will look like three decades from now, Murphy said.

“Underrepresented minorities make up half of the population of Buffalo,” he said. “That’s what the demographics of the U.S. are expected to be in the next 30 years. Unfortunately, fewer than 10% of those who enroll in clinical trials nationally are underrepresented minorities.”

The new grant will allow researchers and students to more closely engage with the community, particularly those on Buffalo's East Side, as part of the new UB Community Health Equity Research Institute. It will help develop "community engagement studios," where researchers will design better studies by meeting with patients who have the disease they are studying. It will also help researchers better use electronic medical records and telemedicine to encourage participation from a patient’s home.

Forty UB faculty will participate in the ongoing work, which will continue to include pilot grants of $40,000 to $50,000 designed to spur new research and garner more financial support.

Part of the initial five-year, $15 million federal grant was used for such seed money.

Dr. John Leddy, an orthopedist, and Dr. Barry Willer, a professor of psychiatry, are co-directors of the UB Concussion Management Clinic. They used some of those funds on their larger effort to find better treatments for those who suffer a concussion. That work led to what a JAMA Pediatrics editorial called a landmark study that concluded teen athletes who suffer a sport-related concussion recover more effectively with a moderate, supervised exercise program than complete rest.

UB concussion study hailed as 'landmark' likely to influence treatment worldwide

Dr. Drucy Borowitz, who splits her time between UB and a position with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, continues work with fellow researchers on a blood test that can better predict a flare-up of the chronic respiratory disease, so earlier treatment can be given.

Mark Ehrensberger, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Anthony Campagnari, professor of microbiology and immunology in the UB Medical School, were able to kindle their idea for a new way to prevent infection after joint replacement surgery. The risks are small – about 2%, Murphy said – but treatment can involve IV antibiotics for up to six weeks and another joint replacement, along with associated pain and malaise.

The two UB researchers are working on an implantable device that could become part of a joint implant and can remotely transmit low-level electrical stimulation to prevent and treat infection. The research was bolstered by a $500,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research. The researchers are working with Garwood Medical Devices on the Medical Campus to bring to market the company's BioPrax device and treatment, which the FDA last year granted medical breakthrough device status. Small animal studies have worked. The hope is to start human clinical trials later this year.

“These grants really give us the opportunity to take new technologies from the bench to the bedside,” said Campagnari, also senior associate dean for research and graduate education in the UB Medical School.

The UB Clinical and Translational Research Center, also on the Medical Campus, will continue to function as the hub of the Buffalo Translational Consortium, comprised of the five university health sciences schools, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, clinical partners UBMD, Kaleida Health, Erie County Medical Center and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo, along with several specialized research institutes and community partners.

UB President Satish K. Tripathi said the renewal grant enables university researchers "to further their investigations into the most vexing health problems, advance critical medical breakthroughs ... and make a positive difference in the lives of people here in Western New York and across the state, the nation and our world.”

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