The federal research grants that Dr. Tom Rothstein and a colleague brought along when they came to Kalamazoo represent a milestone of sorts for the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine.
Totaling $967,155, the four competitive grants from the National Institutes for Health will support research at the medical school’s Center for Immunobiology. The grants had already been committed to Dr. Rothstein and Nichol Holodick when they joined the medical school 15 months ago.
They are the first NIH research grants for the medical school, which opened in 2014 and is now ramping up research starting with the Center for Immunobiology.
“This is part of the evolution of the medical school and this planned development and buildout of our biomedical and translational research,” said Dale Vandre, associate dean for research at the medical school, also known as WMed. “Our priorities were to put together the educational aspects of the medical school. Now we’re to that point where we’re developing our research programs.”
WMed’s move comes as highly competitive federal research funding flowing into Michigan maintains an upward trajectory.
According to a public database, researchers in Michigan secured 1,580 NIH grants at 46 research organizations for a combined $687.3 million in the 2017 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. That compares with 1,530 NIH grants in the 2016 fiscal year worth $669.5 million.
The results show the continued steady growth in federal grants to biomedical researchers in Michigan over the last two decades.
The University of Michigan easily topped the list of recipients in the state with 1,144 NIH grants valued at $509 million, followed by Michigan State University at $58.4 million through 160 grants. Wayne State University in Detroit was third with 150 grants for $54.7 million.
The three universities make up the University Research Corridor in Michigan and collectively accounted for 92 percent of grants and 90 percent of funding from the NIH in the last fiscal year.
Other West Michigan-based grant recipients during the 2017 fiscal year that are listed on the NIH database include Kalamazoo College (one grant for $430,363), Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health Hospitals (one grant for $2.3 million), Grand Rapids-based Tetra Discovery Partners Inc. (two grants for $1 million), and Western Michigan University (two grants for $1.1 million).
For its part, WMed wants to become a larger player in competing for public and private research grants, Vandre said.
“We expect our researchers to compete on a national level just like researchers at other institutions. We want to play with all the big leagues,” he said.
GROWTH FOR VAI
In Grand Rapids, Van Andel Institute drew more federal research grants in the past year than ever before, continuing its steady increase in attracting funding.
VAI researchers won 22 grants totaling a collective $9.36 million from the NIH in the 2017 fiscal year. The funding compares to 20 grants for $8.4 million in the previous year and is more than double the level received in the years before Peter Jones joined VAI in February 2014 as its chief scientific officer.
Jones, a cancer researcher who came to Grand Rapids from the University of Southern California, attributes the growth to VAI’s recruitment of high caliber researchers and the expectation that they seek and secure competitive federal grants to support their work.
Securing a federal grant provides a validation of sorts for researchers. NIH grant proposals are peer-reviewed by “a bunch of scientists who are not your friends and have an objective view of what work should be funded,” Jones said.
“NIH grants are sort of the gold standard by which scientific progress can be measured,” he said. “It continuously tests the quality of our scientists, and for the scientists to test the quality of their work against the national standard. You don’t get these grants unless you have very high quality proposals.”
Jones hopes to sustain VAI’s momentum into the future and further grow NIH funding. He notes that VAI in the 2017 fiscal year received funding commitments for 11 new federal grants for about $24.6 million over the next seven years.
“Last year was a banner year for us,” Jones said. “That’s a good harbinger for the future and that’s a very impressive number from what we’ve had in the past.”
Overall in the 2017 fiscal year, VAI received $28.9 million in public and private foundation grants. They include two awards totaling $5.5 million to pay for clinical trials involving new cancer drugs from Stand Up to Cancer, an organization that raises money to accelerate research for new cancer therapies. VAI researchers received two of the 10 grants the organization awarded this year.
In the next year, Jones wants to generate greater public awareness of the funding that now flows into Grand Rapids and the research cluster that has developed over more than a decade. Those research capabilities also now include Michigan State University’s Grand Rapids Research Center, which opened downtown this fall.
“We’re not just a brewing city or an Amway city, but actually a serious scientific hub,” Jones said. “Now that we have MSU expanding, we can make a very valid argument that we’re not a scientific oasis the way we used to be.”
WMED AIMS TO MAKE IMPACT
At WMed, Rothstein has been working to build the school’s biomedical research operations since his arrival more than a year ago, with plans to recruit additional faculty and scientists to conduct research.
The center will eventually have five faculty members and scientists, Rothstein said.
“We are a full-fledged research operation,” he said, noting that the medical school in September also began hosting monthly seminars with internationally known senior-level researchers.
“We are putting all the pieces together to be a really first-rate, cutting-edge research operation and enterprise here,” he said.
Rothstein joined the medical school in August 2016 from the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York. He was drawn to the medical school by the opportunity to build up the research center in Kalamazoo.
Rothstein brought with him three National Institutes for Health research grants totaling $891,655. Holodick, who also came to WMed from the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, brought a $75,000 NIH grant to examine cell function in sickle cell anemia.
Both plan to apply for additional NIH grants and want to grow grant funding coming to WMed.
“This is the beginning for us,” he said.
Once WMed builds out the Center for Immunobiology in the next few years, it plans to examine developing other research niches in Kalamazoo, Vandre said.
“Probably in the next two to three years, as that center starts to end its recruitment phase and becomes established, we’ll be looking at the next phase of that research buildout,” Vandre said. “We’re going to make an impact on medical research, and that’s our goal.”