Senior Science Writer, University of Utah Health
University of Utah Health has received a $38 million, seven-year Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) from the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The award will support ongoing and emerging efforts by the Utah Clinical & Transitional Science Institute (CTSI) to increase efficiency and effectiveness of research aimed at improving human health and reducing health disparities, says Jennifer Majersik, M.D., M.S., the institute’s co-director and chief of the Division of Vascular Neurology in the Department of Neurology at U of U Health.
With the new funding, the Utah CTSI will continue its participation as one of more than 60 sites in the NCAT’s CTSA program, a national network of medical research institutions working together to improve the translational research process to deliver more treatments to more patients more quickly.
“Funding from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences is critical and widely recognized as a hallmark of tier one academic medical centers,” Majerik says. “It allows the Utah CTSI to continue providing resources to our research community. It fuels our efforts to train the next generation who will drive research forward.”
CTSI is involved with hundreds of projects each year and supports shared resources for clinicians and scientists with the goal of improving the way science is done.
“The Utah CTSI’s infrastructure allows researchers to explore better ways to move biomedical science from bench to bedside, from clinics to populations,” says Rachel Hess, M.D., M.S., the institute’s co-director, a professor in the Departments of Population Health Sciences and Internal Medicine, and Associate Vice President for Research at U of U Health. “From basic discovery through implementation and dissemination, we support high-quality science that helps overcome existing barriers to clinical and translational research. Our ultimate goal is to improve health care by making research more efficient, effective, and equitable.”
To that end, the Utah CTSI will conduct a series of multi-year projects over the next seven years aimed at improving health equity by removing barriers to clinical and translational research, such as underrepresentation of racial and ethnic groups in studies.
“By targeting barriers to inclusiveness throughout the research lifecycle—from study design to analysis––these projects will provide solutions to ensure research is more scalable and applicable to all target populations,” says Ashley Kapron, Ph.D., director of Research and Science Operations at the Utah CTSI.
Two of those projects began earlier this year.
Refining Artificial Intelligence To Ensure Better Patient Care
The first project focuses on the rapidly changing health care landscape by addressing a fundamental question: “Can a physician trust artificial intelligence (AI) to guide patient care?”
AI tools are used to examine historical data from thousands of participants to predict an outcome for a patient. For example, an AI tool could predict risk of diabetes based on someone's age, race, body mass index, family, and medical history. However, the prediction is only as good as the data it was based on. So, if this prediction is based on information that doesn’t include a representative number of women, for example, it may be inaccurate and of little use for the doctor or patient.
Julio Facelli, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, will create and disseminate new methods to help researchers and physicians use AI prediction tools with a better understanding of the limitations of the predictions for individual patients.
Making Clinical Trials More Accessible to Rural Residents
The second project, led by Rob Singleton, M.D., professor and vice chairman of Department of Neurology at U of U Health, will develop methods and infrastructure to enable patients from rural areas to more easily participate in research studies.
Often, it is difficult for rural individuals to travel to medical centers where clinical trials are conducted. Even when some study procedures can be performed virtually, participants still need to have blood for the research study drawn in person. As a result, rural patients are often not well represented in clinical trials, Singleton says. To reduce this burden, Singleton and his colleagues will engage clinics in rural areas to draw blood for these studies, making it easier for local residents to participate in clinical trials and other research.
Utah CTSI Makes a Difference in Mountain West
The Utah CTSI supports hundreds of projects each year, providing key services and resources to help investigators improve how research is done. From statistical and informatics support to community engagement, clinical research, and laboratory expertise, the Utah CTSI supports investigators at every stage of the research lifecycle. Through these collaborations, the Utah CTSI has helped tackle projects focused on opioids, dementia, maternal-fetal health, cardiology, thrombosis, pulmonary research, and more.
In addition to research support, the Utah CTSI also offers training programs for clinical researchers themselves. Through cutting-edge curricula and high-quality mentoring, these programs help graduate students, post-doctoral students, and early career faculty learn the best practices of translational research and ultimately develop their own independent research programs. The Utah CTSI is also launching new programs for local 6th-12th grade students, undergraduate students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and early professional clinical research staff from the Salt Lake Valley.
The Utah CTSI serves as the central hub of translational research in the Mountain West and has become the center for combining the efforts of the University of Utah and its partners into a vibrant research enterprise that advances both clinical projects and the science of translational research.
With this award, the Utah CTSI will continue and grow partnerships with Intermountain Health, Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health Care System, Utah Department of Health and Human Services, Comagine Health, Association for Utah Community Health, University of Nevada, Reno, and Community Faces of Utah.
The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) conducts and supports research on the science and operation of translation—the process by which interventions to improve health are developed and implemented—to allow more treatments to get to more patients more quickly. It is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).