Keck’s NIH CTSA Grant Application: An Interview With Tom Buchanan

Developing new research projects, teams and programs to address important health issues for our community.

July 22, 2010

Partnering with local academic, clinical and community organizations, USC created the Southern California Clinical & Translational Science Institute (SC CTSI) as a transformative mechanism to foster translational research comprehensively. The Institute has been pursuing funding through the NIH Clinical & Translational Science Award (CTSA).  It was just reported that the current application did exceptionally well in peer review.  Keck Research Advancement interviewed Tom Buchanan, MD, SC CTSI Director and Associate Dean for Clinical Research to learn more.

We hear that USC’s current application for an NIH CTSA – Clinical & Translational Science Award – did exceptionally well in review!  Can you elaborate?
Yes - we got a score of 12 on the NIH scale, where 10 is perfect and 90 is terrible. It is one of the best scores any CTSA application has ever gotten in the five years the program has been operational. We won’t have official word about funding until May, but our chances look extremely good. Once funded, we can greatly expand the clinical and translational science activities of the CTSI (I for institute) that we have developed with local funds from USC and CHLA.
That’s amazing!  What were the key changes that made the grant application so successful this time around?

Some important changes clearly made a difference to the study section that reviewed our application:
We made a very strong case for why we are special. The Los Angeles basin, a mega-city with an enormous and exceptionally diverse population, may be THE best place in the nation to fulfill the goals of the CTSA program.  USC and affiliates, and partners at Kaiser Permanente, LA County, and many community organizations, provide the best team in Los Angeles, with a research program primed for launching in the CTSA direction.

We streamlined our organizational structure, partnerships, and staffing plan. We strengthened our leadership team. New key leaders included Carlos Pato for research development (medical school), Carl Kesselman for informatics (engineering school), and Jon Samet for education (medical school – and thanks to Dean Puliafito for recruiting him!). They joined a previously appointed “A Team”, including Robbie Brinton (pharmacy school) for basic science translation, Fred Sattler (medical school) for human studies, Francis Richmond for regulatory science, Alex Capron (law school) for research ethics, and Michele Kipke (CHLA) for community engagement.

We placed an emphasis on innovation, technology, and cohorts. New things added included a partnership with the cinema school and the Institute for Creative Technologies (thanks to Randy Hall and Steve Moldin of the USC Office of Research Advancement!). An emphasis was placed on technology from our top ten engineering school (with support from Dean Yortsos). The revamped research development program places a focus on the racially-diverse cohorts that Keck researchers have been building for years, unique in the nation, now of key importance for large genomic studies.

Importantly, we hired a professional writer to help us put our words into a story that would be compelling and interesting to the reviewers. Carl Marziali, Director of Research Communications for USC, directed us to Denise Gelene, whose past experience included working for the Los Angeles Times as a health writer.  She was fabulous!

We also garnered key advice from a revamped external advisory committee at our CTSA retreat last spring.  Special thanks go to members of the Duke Translational Medicine Institute, especially Deborah Roth, M.S., COO for the DTMI, who orchestrated participation of DTMI leadership by video conference. We also want to thank special California colleagues, including Lars Berglund, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the UC Davis Clinical & Translation Science Center, and Ann Bonham, Ph.D. then executive associate dean for academic affairs at UC Davis, now Chief Research Officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges. Another important participant was Martha Gray, Ph.D. from MIT, who has been advising the Keck and Viterbi School collaborative initiative known as HST@USC. Other special thanks go to Dean Pete Vanderveen (pharmacy school) and associate dean Maja Mataric (engineering school).

What kind of budget are we talking about here?
The total request for five years was $67 million. While that is a lot of money, it will support a lot of activities. We don’t know yet how much the NIH might actually award us, but we are optimistic that we will get sufficient funds to make a real difference in the clinical and translational research environment at USC and with our partners in the CTSA.

What are some of the key activities of the CTSI that will lead to this ultimate success?
We will focus on developing new research projects, teams and programs to address important health issues for our community. Our success will depend on many things, but there are three that stand out in my mind as being really critical. The first is ongoing input from our clinical and community partners to determine what the important problems in health and health care really are. The second is the creativity of our researchers and their willingness to move out of their usual comfort zones to work across disciplines and develop really novel solutions for those health problems. The third is the dedication and talents of the outstanding leadership team we have assembled to run the CTSI. All three of these critical factors are in place. We look forward to receiving a CTSA from NIH so we can begin turning our potential into the reality of better health for the populations we serve.

The original text was published on Keck News

NIH Funding Acknowledgment: Important - All publications resulting from the utilization of SC CTSI resources are required to credit the SC CTSI grant by including the NIH funding acknowledgment and must comply with the NIH Public Access Policy.