Brilliant biomedical discoveries are always in the news. Shouldn’t there be more headlines about fantastic new innovations that are keeping people healthy?

They’re coming, according to Christopher Austin, director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  

“We’re seeing an era of massive collaboration coming in biomedical sciences to get more treatments to patients,” said Austin, who will deliver the next Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 2 Riverside Circle in Roanoke.  

Under Austin’s direction, one of the key roles of NCATS is to lead and administer the nation’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) programs. 

The program awards more than $500 million to the nation’s leading universities and academic health centers for the development and support of innovative clinical and translational research programs. Last year, Virginia Tech, through its partnership with the University of Virginia, joined this elite group of 60 CTSAs, along with clinical partners Carilion Clinic and Inova Health System.   

“We are extremely enthusiastic to be part of the CTSA network – in one short year, working closely with our Carilion Clinic, University of Virginia, and Inova partners, we have already made substantial strides for putting in place programs, tools, and resources to enhance the capacity and opportunities for our faculty, staff, and students to participate in enhanced and impactful clinical and translational research,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech.

Friedlander serves as the chair of the executive advisory committee for the CTSA partnership between Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Carilion Clinic, and Inova Health System, while Warren Bickel, the Virginia Tech Carilion Behavioral Health Research Professor and director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Center for Transformative Research on Health Behaviors, is the principal investigator.

Austin, who is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, said his center functions as “air traffic control” to make connections critical to scientific advances.

“Biomedical science is in an era of unprecedented accomplishment without a concomitant improvement in meaningful health outcomes, and this is creating pressures that extend from the scientific to the societal and political,” Austin said. “There is a lot of great potential in science that is not getting to patients fast enough.”

Moving them forward will require “radically different kinds of collaborations.”

Austin recounted how NCATS aided an effort to find the first treatment for a rare pediatric brain disease to an interviewer for the SNN Network.

By linking academic and NIH investigators, patient foundations, and parents of children who had the disorder, a potential drug was licensed to a company, which has taken it to clinical trials in five years.

“We look at the big roadblocks that prevent these radically different kinds of collaborations from happening more frequently, and we create new ways for them to happen, whether through collaborative structures or agreements, or divisions of labor in the science, and we codify that to teach the whole world how to do it too,” Austin said.

Austin’s career spans the spectrum of translational research in the public and private sectors. He joined the NIH in 2002 as the senior advisor to the director for translational research at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), where he was responsible for conceptualizing and implementing research programs to derive scientific insights and therapeutic benefits from the results of the newly completed Human Genome Project. 

“Scientists at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and throughout Virginia Tech are passionate about making discoveries that result in real world applications to help people,” said Friedlander. “Our interests, entrepreneurial spirit, and even our value of Ut Prosim, that I may serve, dovetails with Dr. Austin’s goals for translational research in the United States.”

The public is invited to the free presentation, which begins with refreshments at 5 p.m.  

While at NHGRI, Austin founded and directed the NIH Chemical Genomics Center, the Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases program, the Toxicology in the 21st Century initiative, and the NIH Center for Translational Therapeutics. 

When NCATS launched in late 2011, Austin became the inaugural director of the center’s Division of Pre-Clinical Innovation, and was appointed director in 2012. The center is scientifically and organizationally different from other NIH institutes and centers, because it focuses on what is common to diseases and the translational process. It serves as a catalyst, bringing together the collaborative teams needed to develop new technologies and paradigms to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the translational process, from target validation through intervention development to demonstration of public health impact. 

Before joining the NIH, Austin worked at the pharmaceutical company Merck, where he directed programs on genome-based discovery of novel targets and drugs, with a particular focus on treatments for schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Austin is trained as a clinician and geneticist. He earned a medical degree from Harvard Medical School and a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in biology from Princeton University. 

He completed a research fellowship in developmental neurogenetics at Harvard, where he studied genetic and environmental influences on stem cell fate determination. Austin also trained in internal medicine and neurology at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, after which he practiced medicine in academic and community hospitals, providing primary care in urban settings and in rural Alaska and Africa.

The free public seminar, named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor, will be webcast live, archived on YouTube, and streamed on Facebook Live.