Express-News: UT Health research given $24 million vote of confidence

By Bruce Selcraig, Express-News Staff Writer

For the third time in 10 years, UT Health San Antonio has received a highly-competitive, $24 million National Institutes of Health grant to accelerate research in new drugs, devices and treatment.

UTHSA has received similar five-year grants in 2008 and 2013 and was joined this year by research centers at such institutions as Duke University, Yale, UCLA and the Mayo Clinic in receiving major funding in the face of once-promised cuts to NIH funding by the Trump administration.

“This is a significant milestone for us and our institution,” said Dr. William Henrich, president of UTHSA, who was in New York on Thursday to give a talk. “This level of funding is always important, but to receive this at a time of such funding pressure at the federal level is remarkable.”

Biomedical researchers were shocked when the 2018 omnibus spending bill that President Donald Trump signed March 23 contained an 8.8 percent raise for the NIH — about $3 billion, its largest in 15 years. The bill included $414 million in new funding for Alzheimer’s disease research, $40 million in new funds for research on a universal flu vaccine and some $500 million for research on opioid addiction, among other grants.

The new funding to UTHSA will help pay salaries of about 50 to 75 faculty and researchers, said Dr. Robert Clark, director of the UTHSA institute that administers the Clinical and Translational Science Award money.

Clark said more than 100 people were actively involved in researching and writing the grant proposal. The process began in June 2016, was submitted for peer review in May 2017 and was awarded last month.

“Politically, the administration wanted to see some cuts in NIH funding,” Clark said by phone from Switzerland, “but the Congress came through. House and Senate. It was wonderful to see.”

Clark said just one example of how these taxpayer funds might translate into real-world remedies would be research into the opioid epidemic. “That’s a national priority for the CTSA,” he said. “We’ve been working on that a couple of years and have had a number of conferences, and we’re requesting supplemental funds to do more research on opioid overdoses.”

Henrich, a kidney specialist, recalled that when he was a young doctor the literature on many cancer tumors suggested they were “hopeless” but that many categories of cancer deaths have been reduced by as much as 15 percent to 20 percent in the past decade, due in part to federal funding like the grant UTHSA will receive.

Clark said the new NIH funding will not be focused on any specific disease but will support broad-based pilot projects in cancer, heart disease, diabetes, regenerative medicine, aging and neuroscience, among other areas.

Asked if Washington lobbying was required to secure a third NIH grant in 10 years, Henrich laughed and said such a strategy would be futile. “There’s a rigorous procedure that doesn’t allow people to affect it,” he said. “We always advocate, but we never lobby.”

From concept to consumer, the process of creating a new and effective drug can easily exceed a decade. “We’d be really happy,” said Clark, “if this grant money helped contribute to a half dozen new drugs someday.”

One CTSA-funded pilot project enabled Dr. William C. Clarke, professor of pharmacology at UT Health, to begin rodent tests of a new drug that prevents damage to peripheral sensory nerves caused by the anti-cancer drug Taxol.

Another pilot project, conducted by Dr. Sara Espinoza, associate professor of medicine (geriatrics), examined the effects of the diabetes drug Metformin in senior adults. With the success of that study, Espinoza was able to attract a larger NIH grant.

“We follow very closely our return on investment from our support of pilot projects, junior faculty scholars and trainees,” Clark said. “From a $3 million investment, the total of downstream grants is currently approaching $30 million.”

The new federal funds will also establish master’s and doctoral programs and bolster research teams at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas School of Public Health’s San Antonio Regional Campus.

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