In 2010, Virginia Tech created a biomedical research institute with one employee and a vision. The plan was for biomedical innovation and translational research supported by state-of-the-art infrastructure and collaboration that spanned the behavioral, biological and computational sciences, and engineering.

Now the vision has taken shape. That was the message for the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors during its August meeting in Roanoke, as its members toured the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, met with scientists and students in their labs, and heard from founding Executive Director Michael Friedlander.

“We are very fortunate to be able to recruit world-class innovators and thought-leaders, to build strong collaborative relationships with other academic as well as clinical and industry partners, and to be part of an academic community at one of the most forward-looking universities in the nation that sees transformative service as foundational,” said Friedlander, who is also Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “Our researchers and the teams of support staff and an amazingly talented cadre of students have been successful beyond expectations in pursuing answers to the big questions that will positively impact health and quality of life.”

Leading scientists

One stop on the tour was the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Center for Health Behaviors Research led by Director Warren Bickel and Co-Directors Alexandra DiFeliceantonio and Jeff Stein.

Bickel was one of the institute’s first recruits — he also directs the research institute’s Addiction Recovery Research Center and is in the top 0.1 percent of the world’s most highly cited researchers. He and his colleagues develop and implement new scientifically sound approaches to help people who smoke, overeat, or have substance use disorders improve their decision-making and adopt healthy behaviors. He also examines the impact of nicotine tax and regulatory policies on purchase behaviors.  

With them hosting the tour was Zhen Yan, director of the institute’s Center for Exercise Medicine Research, which studies the mechanisms of exercise and its role in disease prevention and treatment. Yan was recognized with the prestigious international Jacobæus Prize, which is awarded annually by the Novo Nordisk Foundation for groundbreaking achievements.

Across the hall from the health behaviors group, Read Montague, another member of the research institute’s founding faculty, has developed a technology to make first-of-their-kind measurements of dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline in the brains of patients with Parkinson’s disease or seizures. The goal is to provide insights into childhood epilepsy and neurodegenerative disorders, with a specific lens on the role of brain chemicals essential for so much of human cognition in health and disease.

Montague was one of seven world leaders in neuroscience invited to present his findings at a September 2022 event sponsored and hosted by the Nobel Assembly in Stockholm.

Montague and the others are among 38 primary researchers at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, which has grown from a staff of one to 468 people supporting transformative science — and climbing. 

At the end of August, the research institute was actively hiring for 44 open positions in Roanoke as well as Washington, D.C., and Phoenix, Arizona.

State-of-the-art infrastructure

The researchers’ labs are in three buildings on the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke, including a 139,000-square-foot building that opened in summer 2020.

The new building is one of only four facilities nationwide that have, in an adjacent space, both a whole-room respiration calorimeter and a smaller flex chamber to measure metabolic rate and fat and carbohydrate energy expenditure in human study subjects. It’s one of the spaces DiFeliceantonio uses to investigate why people are drawn to ultra-processed foods, which have been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, different types of cancer, and increased risk of heart disease and death.

In the next few months, the biosafety level 3 facility in Riverside 4 is becoming even more state-of-the-art. Users must enter through two self-closing, interlocked doors in a space with sealed windows, floors, and walls and a filtered ventilation system. Access is strictly controlled.

Research with infectious agents is being streamlined, however, through a buildout of high-end research equipment — together in the biosafety unit — to facilitate research such as lung function tests, cross-functional ultrasound and photoacoustic imaging, metabolic screening, and cell-sorting technology.

Carla Finkielstein received a major new $2.7 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to study transmission of the SARS CoV-2 virus between humans and animals, utilizing the strength of the research institute’s state of the art molecular virology facilities.

Scientists’ work extends beyond the Roanoke campus, however. In addition to collaborations with faculty in Blacksburg and at the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Alexandria, Virginia Tech’s biomedical research extends to include 12,000 square feet to support research teams on the Children’s National Research & Innovation campus in Washington, D.C.

And the Center for Human Neuroscience Research, led by Montague, is building bridges with the renowned Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix to expand the reach of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s computational neuroscience research.

“Our main health science campus is here in Roanoke, with our primary clinical partner being Carilion Clinic,” Friedlander noted. “But we also have increasingly strong clinical partners in other places as well, including the Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C.; the Wake Forest Cancer Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.; and most recently, the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona. We are going to continue to build those networks.”

Innovative academic programs

The Roanoke campus also has grown as an academic center for health research, education and training. Fall 2022 ushered in the inaugural class of the Integrated Health Sciences and Research Program, a formal program that offers an immersive experience for Virginia Tech undergraduates interested in health careers and translational biomedical research. 

Another highlight is the Translational Biology, Medicine and Health (TBMH) Graduate Program, which admitted its first class in 2014. It has graduated more than 76 alumni and has 84 students currently enrolled. The program was recognized by the Association of American Medical Colleges for innovation in graduate education and training. Steven Poelzing, director of the program, shared highlights with board members on their tour.

The program boasts a doctoral completion rate of 86.6 percent, compared with a national average that ranges from 41.6 percent to 56.2 percent, according to National Institutes of Health data. “Those numbers are a testament to the quality of our students and the support they receive from the faculty and staff,” Friedlander said.

Graduates have gone on to postdoctoral positions at the National Institutes of Health and Mayo Clinic as well as Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, and Yale universities. They also are working in industry and for government at such places as Novartis, Astra Zeneca, and the Centers for Disease Control.

Discoveries and grant growth

Growth is measured by more than employees, academics, and square footage. Investigators were successful in bringing in $43 million in outside grant funding in the most recent fiscal year, the majority of which was from the National Institutes of Health. That brings the total of currently funded extramural project awards to $173.7 million, up from $31.4 million a decade earlier.

Researchers are focusing those resources on the world’s most pressing health challenges and leading new discoveries in areas such as cancer, brain disorders, cardiovascular disease, children’s health, obesity, and addiction. In the past five years, faculty published over 700 peer reviewed articles and chapters, with many in the top 2 percent of the highest impact biomedical and health science publications. In the most recent year, faculty authored over 200 publications.

Assistant Professor Alexei Morozov discovered a brain pathway that enables individual animals to rapidly coordinate a unified response. His work, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, provides a target to advance research on the poorly understood brain activity that underlies coordinated group movement and has implications for research into a variety of human neuropsychiatric disorders.

Sharon Ramey found that women who experienced high stress during childhood and adolescence may be at higher risk for inflammation during pregnancy. The findings, published in the March issue of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, provide more evidence that early life stress may affect women’s health through pathways that involve immune responses and inflammation.

And in Precision Oncology, a Nature partner journal, Associate Professor Jennifer Munson described how a novel 3D tissue-engineered model of the microenvironment of glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor, can be used to learn why the tumors return and what treatments will be most effective at eradicating them.

Munson, co-director of the Virginia Tech Cancer Research Alliance, leveraged those findings into another measure of translational research success — commercialization, a tool for moving discoveries from the lab into clinical application.

She is among a growing number of researchers who can claim membership in the ranks of academic entrepreneurs. They are taking advantage of programs such as Virginia Tech’s Link + License + Launch to translate biomedical research into tools to help prevent, diagnose, and treat disease.

Cairina Inc. officially formed in February, and for Munson and her collaborators the goal is to improve cancer treatment by commercializing a decade’s worth of work surrounding fluid flow. “We need better treatments for patients facing complex and hard-to-treat cancers,” Munson said.

Graph showing growth of extramural funding

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