The founding vision to create the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute was bold: Amass a concentration of biomedical research talent and catalyze it with the resources of a major research university and an enterprising health care system, then give it the freedom to innovate.

It worked. Since opening eight years ago, the research institute has enabled interdisciplinary collaboration among creative, entrepreneurial scientists and provided access to state-of-the-art molecular biology, imaging, behavioral, and computational facilities.

In turn, exciting opportunities for technological and conceptual innovations in the biomedical and health sciences have been created, allowing for disruptive approaches to disease prevention and healthy living, as well as next-generation, technologically advanced diagnostics and therapeutics.

Now, the research institute is taking a giant leap forward with a new name — the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC — following the commitment of $50 million from businessman and philanthropist Heywood Fralin; his wife, Cynthia Fralin; and the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust to tackle the top challenges in biomedical and health sciences research. The commitment is the largest ever made to Virginia Tech and will be endowed to provide a permanent source of funding.

Beam topping
Carilion Clinic Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Patrice Weiss (left), Virginia Tech Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology Michael J. Friedlander, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, and Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea watch in September 2018 as a crane raises a final beam into the framework of the Virginia Tech Carilion Biomedical Research Addition in Roanoke.

The naming recognizes the Fralin commitment to support fundamental work of the institute, which is to make scientific discoveries, generate innovations, improve health through biomedical research, and build the state’s biotech economy.

“The gift to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute signals a new era of scientific discovery, achievement, and transformation for Roanoke, Southwest Virginia, and the entire state,” said Michael J. Friedlander, the executive director of the research institute and the vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “We are strategically positioned to attract the best scientific talent to join our institute and collaborate with the successful research teams already in place. We will continue to follow our successful roadmap, including collaborating with universities and health systems throughout Virginia and beyond.”

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said the transformative gift would dramatically accelerate the institute’s already considerable impact.

“It’s remarkable to consider what has been accomplished in Roanoke in less than 10 years — and it’s just the beginning,” Sands said. “Thanks to the collaboration between Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic, the leadership of Dr. Friedlander, and the support of the City of Roanoke and the commonwealth, we are transforming the institute and attracting top talent that will make the next decade even more significant.”

Sands expects connections to multiply between Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg and Roanoke campuses, creating a nexus of research and innovation that will extend across the state.

“We have great confidence in this endeavor,” Sands said. “Because we have great partners — including the Fralins, Carilion Clinic, the people of Roanoke and Blacksburg, the commonwealth, and Virginia Tech alumni — we can realize a vision much greater than any of us could achieve on our own.”  

As for the Fralins, the commitment to the university is an endorsement of the transformative effects that biomedical research has already had on the city, the community, and the state.

“I like to become involved in projects that make me burst with enthusiasm,” Heywood Fralin said. “This institute conducts world-class research of the caliber that any university in the nation — whether it’s an Ivy League school like Harvard or Yale, or one of the top public universities — would be proud to have in their portfolio. This is research that will change the world.”

The Fralin commitment  is certain to energize the institute’s faculty members, who are widely regarded as scientific leaders in concentrated areas of neuroscience, cardiovascular science, cancer, immunity and infection, and regeneration and rehabilitation.

“When I was a doctoral student at Stony Brook University, it was important to be associated with a named institute or named college department,” said Gregorio Valdez, an associate professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the Department of Biological Sciences of the Virginia Tech College of Science. “It is very motivational to know people recognize the importance of your work and are eager to commit resources to help. It is exciting to see that happening here in our institute.”

Nancy Howell Agee is president and chief executive officer of Carilion Clinic, a leading health care system centered in Roanoke.

“As one of the region’s largest employers and a top innovative health system in the country, Carilion Clinic is deeply involved in the health and well-being of the community,” Agee said. “We understand how research is vitally important in order to advance health care, and are thrilled to see Heywood raise the bar to new heights — right here in Roanoke — through his commitment to Virginia Tech and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.”

With the infusion of resources from the Fralin gift, the research institute will launch a recruiting blitz for top international biomedical researchers, along the lines of the influx of scientific talent that began to arrive in Roanoke when the research institute opened on Sept. 1, 2010.

Under Friedlander’s direction, the institute has focused on a small number of key, strategic areas in biomedical and health science to differentiate the commonwealth as a national and global hub for research and innovation.

The institute quickly became recognized for having assembled some of the nation’s top scientific talent, including faculty, staff and students — and for accomplishments in multiple areas:

  • Diagnosis and treatment of addiction and substance abuse in adolescents and adults, including for opioids, tobacco and alcohol
  • A new form of intensive child neurorehabilitation to treat the devastating consequences of neonatal stroke, including cerebral palsy.
  • Technological innovations in interactive multi-subject and real-time human functional brain imaging with the parallel development of the new field of computational psychiatry.
  • A revolutionary paradigm for understanding how electrical signaling occurs in the human heart and identification of new targets for treating disturbances of heart rhythm in order to reduce the likelihood of sudden cardiac death.
  • Several new strategies for treating the deadliest form of brain cancer in humans and in companion animals.
  • The first elucidation of structural deformity in the molecule that causes a pernicious form of breast cancer.
  • A pivotal new insight into the origins of memory cells in the immune system to fight infection and mediate immunity through vaccination.

 

As the institute grew, the strategic areas evolved, today reflecting cardiovascular science, neuroscience, cancer, immunology and infection, and regeneration and rehabilitation.

Several recent discoveries have been patented and are centerpieces of spin-off companies, including a new brain cancer stem cell therapeutic and a new diagnostic screen for alcohol abuse risk, both of which have won highly competitive federal technology transfer business awards.

Meanwhile, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute is working to increase development of intellectual property, to commercialize discoveries through startup businesses, and to grow an already strong portfolio of partnerships with industry to propel innovation from the laboratory to the clinic and community.

“Heywood’s commitment will propel the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute to even greater achievements, provide for attracting leading researchers who will win competitive grants and contracts to create new high paying jobs, provide opportunities for more students, and contribute to the overall vibrancy, culture, and diversity of Southwest Virginia,” Friedlander said. “Words and dollar figures fall short of expressing what he has done for us in terms of engagement, strategy, and advocacy in government and the private sector. His faith in our mission has been remarkable.”

— Written by John Pastor