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Revving up the research engine

Collaboration between the UT Health Science Center and UTSA accelerates

March 2011

by Will Sansom

It isn’t salsa, but an institute with a similar name is firing up the cogs of collaboration between the Health Science Center and The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Launched in 2003, the San Antonio Life Sciences Institute, or SALSI, is now viewed by many across Texas as the model for how an educational institution and a health science center join forces for greater research and graduate education.

Brian Herman, Ph.D., vice president for research at the Health Science Center, calls SALSI "the collaborative engine for South Texas’ new knowledge-based economy." As the economy moves further into the Information Age, SALSI ensures that better-trained professionals are being educated for the workforce of the future, he says. A special advisory group that studied whether to merge the Health Science Center and UTSA recommended to the UT System Board of Regents: "Expand and fund SALSI as an effective vehicle to advance UTSA’s graduate and research programs as well as the scientific goals of the Health Science Center."

William L. Henrich, M.D., MACP, president of the Health Science Center, says "SALSI has been an efficient, cost-effective model to bring together Texas’ great academic and scientific minds. In this era of declining National Institutes of Health dollars, it has helped to ‘prime the pump’ for collaboration in the areas of research, education and intellectual property that will benefit the entire state." Thomas Kowalski, president of the Texas Healthcare & Bioscience Institute, located in Austin, says "SALSI represents everything we have been advocating for the last 15 years; Texas is on the map because of programs like SALSI."

119 publications, 20 inventions, 172 percent ROI

Since funding its first pilot research projects in 2004, SALSI has brought together dozens of teams of Health Science Center and UTSA investigators representing many scientific and academic disciplines. Forty-eight SALSI seed grants have enabled teams who might not have collaborated otherwise to conduct research leading to 119 joint publications and 20 inventions developed jointly by the Health Science Center and UTSA. One of the inventions is a Chlamydia vaccine being developed with MERCK. Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted disease.

SALSI has helped researchers acquire an additional $8.2 million in research funding beyond the $4.8 million that was originally awarded — a 172 percent return on investment. Moreover, the Health Science Center and UTSA expect to soon see additional returns on investment for projects funded in 2009 and 2010. Ongoing research targets glaucoma, prostate cancer, drug delivery, HIV, diabetes, aging, regenerative medicine and more. Researchers who team up to conduct SALSI-supported pilot projects are required to apply for extramural funding within 12 months of receiving SALSI grants.

  Timothy Duong, Ph.D.
Timothy Duong, Ph.D., compares high-resolution MRI images of the retinas of animal models as he looks for early signs of glaucoma. Photo by Lester Rosebrock
SALSI has launched seven joint educational initiatives between the two institutions, including Master of Science (M.S.) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree programs in biomedical engineering. Thirty M.S. students and 41 Ph.D. students are in the biomedical engineering program. Eight students have received the M.S. degree and 12 the Ph.D. since the first degrees were awarded in December 2007. One graduate is working in government, 11 are in academia and five are working in industry. Three are in advanced programs, such as the M.D.-Ph.D. dual-degree program. "Our students have come from places such as Yale, Duke, MIT, Rice and UT Austin, so our quality is on a par with those institutions in STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)," said Joo Ong, Ph.D., chair of biomedical engineering at UTSA.

Training a future physician-scientist
One of these students is Will Lavery, who is in the fourth year of the M.D.-Ph.D. program at the Health Science Center. A SALSI grant enables him to work with Timothy Duong, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Kiel, Ph.D., of the Health Science Center, and Rena Bizios, Ph.D., of UTSA, in an area of research interest: the eye disease glaucoma. Glaucoma is silent; by the time a person notices vision loss, irreversible damage has occurred. This SALSI-funded project uses magnetic resonance imaging to study blood flow in early glaucoma. Dr. Duong performs the MRI studies, Dr. Kiel works with an animal model and Dr. Bizios conducts cell studies. "We complement each other, Dr. Bizios said. The team hopes to shed new light on abnormal blood flow conditions in the eye that long precede current medicine’s ability to detect this blinding disease.

"To me, SALSI encompasses two big things," Lavery says. "First, it is a chance for scientists to work on new ideas and gather pilot data with the ultimate goal of attaining very large grants from the National Institutes of Health. Second, SALSI is a chance to conduct translational research — that is, to conduct research at the laboratory bench that can eventually help improve health care delivered at the patient bedside. My career goal is to be a true physician-scientist who conducts original research and helps to translate discoveries into improving health care delivery."

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and Rep. Robert Puente, supported by members of the Bexar County legislative delegation, authored bills in the 77th session of the state Legislature to create SALSI. The goal was to develop synergies in research and education that would exceed the combined efforts of the Health Science Center and UTSA if each were acting alone. "To date, SALSI has enabled the development of initiatives that will stimulate the growth of the biomedical and biotechnology industries in San Antonio and South Texas," Dr. Herman said. "These developments will foster the commercialization of the products of research at the partner institutions."

From research that can enhance the quality of life, to education of a well-educated work force, to commercialization of new technologies, to bolstering the region’s knowledge-based economy, SALSI is truly proving to be a catalyst for positive change — the ignition for a new era of Health Science Center and UTSA collaborations for the public good.

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