The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors was updated on the university’s expanding health sciences research portfolio during its Academic, Research, and Student Affairs Committee session in June.

The board heard from Virginia Tech Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke and Michael Friedlander, vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, along with Professor Rob Gourdie, graduate student Rachel Padgett, and medical student Chris Childers.

“Guided by our land-grant mission and commitment to improving global health, Virginia Tech is strategically positioned to continue leading in health sciences research and education,” Clarke said. “Examining the university’s involvement in the health sciences provides our faculty and university partners with an opportunity to synthesize research and innovation expertise with active teaching and learning experiences.”

Virginia Tech’s overall annual funding across the campus from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has grown by 57 percent in the past five years. The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, a cornerstone of the university’s strategic investment in health sciences, was awarded about 43 percent of Virginia Tech’s NIH awards in fiscal year 2020.

“This significant growth in extramural funding from the NIH underscores the innovative researchers at Virginia Tech and the high regard in which they and their work are held by peers at the national level, and the first-class biomedical research facilities we have at Virginia Tech,” Friedlander said. 

The university has a strong focus in five core areas of health sciences research that affect the majority of Americans, focusing on the areas of greatest societal needs and scientific opportunities to make progress.

The areas include cardiovascular disease, cancer, infectious diseases, brain disorders, and harmful health behaviors, such as addiction and obesity. The combined health care costs associated with these illnesses cost the United States more than $3 trillion and impact a majority of Americans annually. These consequences do not even take into account the enormous health impact and financial burden of the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to recruiting leading biomedical and health sciences researchers across the colleges and institutes in Blacksburg, at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke, and on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C., Virginia Tech continuously invests in leading-edge instrumentation. 

Recent investments and innovations include an optically pumped magnetometry brain imaging laboratory, a new MRI-guided focused ultrasound facility, MRI-guided positron emission tomography, and super resolution microscopy.

“Our researchers are not limited by the tools available to them. We are always looking ahead to position Virginia Tech at the threshold of biomedical science innovation,” Friedlander said. 

Students also benefit from the high-quality instrumentation and mentorship available to them at Virginia Tech. 

Friedlander highlighted the success of several translational biology, medicine, and health (TBMH) graduate students who recently received highly competitive individual NIH predoctoral fellowships, including Gabriela CarrilloUbadah Sabbagh, Paras PatelRachel PadgetHassan Farah, and Joe Grieco.   

In addition to the graduate students, medical students from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and undergraduates also benefit from access to these technologies and the committed research mentorship of faculty.

Padget, a student in the TBMH program, shared her research experience in cardiovascular disease at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute while Childers, a medical student, described his research experience in biomedical engineering and mechanics on the use of ultrasound.  

Both explained the unique curricula and research opportunities available in their respective programs at Virginia Tech.

Friedlander also informed the Board of Visitors about five emerging cancer research and drug delivery start-ups: Tiny Cargo CompanyAcomhal Research, CytoRecovery, Selectide Therapeutics, and VoltMed.  

Gourdie, the director of the Center for Vascular and Heart Research and a professor of biomedical engineering, has helped spin out the Tiny Cargo and Acomhal Research companies and develops novel approaches for targeted delivery of therapeutics. He noted how being at Virginia Tech and in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute provides a receptive environment for his basic research as well as translating it and bringing it to the public through commercialization.

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