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Imaging Research in Utah

Apr 1, 2007 6:00 PM

For a center focused on images, the Medical Imaging Research Laboratory (MIRL) had a relatively low profile.

Imaging research at the University of Utah began in the late 1970s, when David G. Bragg., M.D., former chair and professor emeritus of radiology, started the MIRL, according to Edwin A. "Steve" Stevens, M.D. By the late 1980s, with a staff of research scientists that included Dennis L. Parker, Ph.D., the laboratory received more than $1 million annually and was well-known internationally, but not on the U of U campus, said Stevens, professor and chair of radiology.

"We had these researchers doing fabulous work, but it was difficult to get them together with the clinicians," Stevens said.

When he joined the U Department of Radiology in 1996, Stevens took an immediate interest in medical imaging research. He and Parker established monthly coordinating meetings for research and clinical faculty to share ideas. The conferences immediately proved popular.

"They became a really fertile discussion area," Stevens recalled, "and fostered remarkable collaborative research campuswide."

The concept of the Utah Center for Advanced Imaging Research (UCAIR) sprang up in the late 1990s, with the idea of establishing an endowment to fund operational costs. The imaging laboratory's infrastructure had been funded from clinical income at University Hospital, but this wasn't a stable arrangement. "All the top-tier programs have significant endowments," noted Stevens. He and Parker formed a plan to separate research from clinical income and set the goal to build a $6 million endowment. A Ph.D. researcher and a physician each contributed seed money to start the fund.

Research would be funded by royalties from patents on inventions, about $100,000 a year; income from pharmaceutical studies; revenue generated through the use of UCAIR facilities; grant money that paid overhead costs; and endowed chairs established through foundation support. Stevens presented the plan to A. Lorris Betz, M.D., Ph.D., senior vice president for health sciences and executive dean of the medical school. As part of the proposal, Stevens offered to use his recruiting package as chair of radiology to underwrite UCAIR with $300,000 a year for three years.

With Betz's approval, UCAIR was officially established in 2002. Two years later, the University officially recognized it as a research center. As evidence of the quality of its research, UCAIR last year brought in more than $3.6 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), placing it and the Department of Radiology in the top 20 imaging centers in the nation, according to Stevens. At the end of 2006, UCAIR was about halfway to reaching its $6 million endowment goal.

Securing NIH research funding has become increasingly challenging. To fill the gap left by fewer grants, UCAIR is looking for help from private foundations and other sources. Last November, the center received a big boost when the Ben E. and Iris M. Margolis Foundation gave a $1.8 million research grant that will provide $300,000 annually for five years. This money will be leveraged to obtain NIH funding.

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