Health science initiatives are expanding across campus, creating a landscape of innovation to address global medical concerns and bolster the economy, according to the directors of two campus-wide research programs who spoke Sunday to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors.

Mike Friedlander, the executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and associate provost for health sciences, and David Kingston, a University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and director of the new Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery, talked about scientific advances in human health, novel research programs, technology licensing, start-up companies, and drug discovery and development.

Kingston said drug discovery efforts present a unique opportunity for Virginia Tech, especially with the pharmaceutical industry coping with shrinking numbers of new drugs being approved by the Food and Drug Administration, patent protection expiring on $75 billion in branded drugs through 2015, and pressure from governmental and citizen organizations for cost savings.

As a result, the pharmaceutical industry is partnering with academia, government laboratories, and biotech companies for research and development.

The scenario dovetails with the Center for Drug Discovery’s vision, which is to produce compounds that will reach "investigational new drug" status and become a major force in drug discovery, development, and delivery in the United States, according to Kingston, who was the Virginia scientist of the year in 2002 and is currently a member of the National Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 

Two medicinal plants are named in Kingston's honor, including a yew tree called Taxus kingstonii, which is the source of the world's best-selling anticancer drug, Paclitaxel, commonly known as Taxol.

Faculty members comprising the drug discovery center hail from five Virginia Tech colleges and three premier research institutes, including Fralin Life Science Institute, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, and several from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Meanwhile, growth of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute continues to surge since its opening in September 2010, Friedlander said. Twenty-one faculty team leaders who currently hold more than $31 million in active research grants have been recruited, and more than 135 staff, including research associates, postdoctoral fellows, software engineers, graduate students, and technicians, are working to solve health challenges.

With brain diseases accounting for $995 billion in annual medical costs — more than the burden of all cancers and heart disease together — institute scientists are tackling diseases such as addiction, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, autism spectrum disorder, brain cancer, behavioral disorders, cerebral palsy, dementia, epilepsy, mental retardation, traumatic brain injury, and stroke.

Several faculty members are developing start-up companies to help speed clinical solutions to the bedside.

The research institute also serves as the hub of the Roanoke Brain Study, which globally links neuroscientists in an exploration of the everyday tasks of brains, such as decision-making, understanding social context, and relating to others. Through functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging devices connected and synchronized over the Internet, scientists can safely study brain activity during interactions between as many as six volunteers, no matter where they are in the world. The study will expand understanding of normal cognition and psychiatric disorders.

Other studies are exploring physician decision-making behaviors, cognitive aging, noninvasive neuromodulation treatments, and pediatric neuromotor rehabilitation for children with cerebral palsy.

All told, research institute scientists are collaborating on projects with researchers at 75 additional institutions spread across 27 states, 17 countries, and six continents.

In many of its clinical studies, institute faculty members are collaborating with Carilion Clinic on projects involving emergency medicine, cardiology and infectious disease, occupational and physical therapy, pediatrics, psychiatry, plastic surgery, and neurosurgery.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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