LITTLE ROCK — The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and its affiliate research institutions saw research funding grow by 43 percent this past year, with $158.1 million in grants by the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

The bulk of the funding is from the National Institutes of Health and other federal sources, said Shuk-Mei Ho, Ph.D., vice chancellor for Research and Innovation.

“This is truly encouraging news for our research enterprise,” Ho said. “These funds help us answer critical scientific questions, test new ideas for tackling Arkansas’ major health issues, and elevate the stature of UAMS as a premier academic health center in the nation.”

UAMS researchers compete for federal grants with their counterparts at research institutions across the United States.

UAMS researchers work on the UAMS main campus, its regional campuses, and at its affiliates Arkansas Children’s Research Institute and the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System.

UAMS-based researchers acquired $125.5 million in grants, an increase of 55 percent.

A total 358 projects received funding, with a number of big grants driving the increase. Topping the list is a five-year, $24.2 million Clinical and Translational Science Award to the UAMS Translational Research Institute from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the NIH.

Helping spur the funding growth, Ho said, are new approaches and strategies at UAMS that have prioritized collaborative efforts, increased efficiencies in research administration, and focused investments more directly in areas related to improving health outcomes in Arkansas.

In many ways, UAMS is fundamentally changing the way it conducts research under the direction of Ho; Laura James, M.D., director of the Translational Research Institute and associate vice chancellor for clinical and translational research; and Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor and director of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

Birrer, an internationally renowned physician scientist, joined UAMS in December 2019 to lead UAMS’ pursuit of National Cancer Institute Designation.

In recent months, many UAMS researchers have shifted their focus to COVID-19.

“We are ramping up efforts that address extremely difficult medical and bio-behavioral issues that rank Arkansas among the least healthy states,” Ho said. “To achieve our aims, including with COVID-19, we are being strategic and building teams of experts from multiple disciplines.”

Robust partnerships and joint grant submissions between UAMS, its growing Northwest Regional Campus, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock are playing larger roles, she said.

James said UAMS collaborations with ACRI and CAVHS are also a top priority for the institute.

At CAVHS, UAMS researchers in fiscal 2020 successfully competed for nearly $9 million in grants from the Veterans Affairs Research and Development program and nonprofit Biomedical Research Foundation. The funding, which represents an increase of more than 15 percent compared to 2019, has supported 23 research projects. Funded research centers include the Pharmacogenomics Analysis Laboratory; the Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center; the South Central Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center; the Center for Mental Healthcare and Outcomes Research; and the Behavioral Health Quality Enhancement Research Initiative.

The VA research program is focused on veterans’ needs. CAVHS’ basic and translational research include aging and cognitive decline, suicide prevention, bone metabolism, atherosclerosis, and more recently, COVID-19.

At ACRI, UAMS researchers in fiscal 2020 acquired $23.8 million, supporting 140 projects, compared to $23.7 million last year. ACRI researchers, with expertise in basic science and clinical and community-based research, are addressing a broad spectrum of children’s health concerns including childhood nutrition, childhood obesity, food allergy, diabetes-related complications, and numerous childhood diseases including asthma and cancer.

As a CTSA-funded institution, UAMS is among a select group of about 60 research centers. UAMS researchers including those at CAVHS and ACRI enjoy new levels of support to help them launch multidisciplinary and multi-center studies and move their discoveries into everyday practice.

Ho foresees expanding on UAMS’ existing strengths in cancer, bone health, infectious diseases and addiction reduction research with new emphasis on digital health, artificial intelligence, machine learning and regenerative medicine. She believes UAMS will continue to demonstrate innovations in research that address issues related to vulnerable populations, health disparities in rural Arkansas, and implementation of the best health care practices.

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