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Pushing the pace of new drug development

Pushing the pace of new drug development

FIU has exploded the traditional model of academic research by swapping silos for a dazzling new outpost devoted to translational science

March 1, 2022 at 9:00am

FIU has strengthened its research capacity with a newly outfitted building that completes a dynamic triangle dedicated to investigative medicine. The Center for Translational Science (CTS) is part of a complex in Port St. Lucie, Florida, that also includes a hospital and separate research facility both run by Cleveland Clinic.

A two-hour drive from the university’s main campus, the CTS serves as a natural extension of FIU’s research prowess at a time when wider partnerships have grown increasingly important. It represents an exceptional opportunity to work creatively, and smarter, in support of scientific advances to more quickly make a difference in patients’ lives.

The new space lays the ground for a continuum that begins in the lab and includes cooperating with other institutions as well as companies that can run with the resulting discoveries.

“The days of somebody being able to work in their lab and do everything under one roof are gone,” says Stephen Black, an expert in pulmonary vascular disease and the director of the center. “The fundamental thing is to be willing to collaborate.”

Black, formerly chief of translational and regenerative medicine at the University of Arizona medical school, looks to the lightning-fast COVID-19 vaccines rollouts as examples of productive synergy that must be applied to cure cancer, Alzheimer’s, lung disease and more. Developing a new pharmaceutical typically takes a decade or longer, he explains, “so the potential impact on human health care is fantastically high here.”

Experts in areas such as brain injury and aging, inflammation and infection, and environmental medicine are on board, and the four-story building will eventually house 300 scientific personnel.

No More Turf Wars

At the core of the new approach: collaboration among investigators across projects and disciplines. If secrecy and closed doors ruled in the past, openness and interactivity now reign.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the laboratories themselves, each of which features approximately 5,000 square feet to accommodate multiple research teams and adjacent rooms filled with specialized equipment. Black purposefully tore down walls and put folks with overlapping interests in proximity of one another to encourage cross-pollination. Research activity there complements endeavors within FIU's Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work.

Looking Outward

FIU likewise works side-by-side with outside collaborators, such as the Cleveland Clinic, which has a hospital and research institute each within a few walking minutes of the CTS. All three facilities have a common goal of saving lives through groundbreaking discoveries and innovation.

Michaela Gack, scientific director of Cleveland Clinic Florida Research and Innovation Center (FRIC), opened in 2020, embraces the sharing of “complementary infrastructure and core facilities.” She anticipates giving FIU researchers access to the FRIC’s high-containment biological lab — a state-of-the-art facility for the study of infectious viral agents — and to a “biobank” of tissue samples. And the co-submission of grants emphasizes a commitment to mutually beneficial relationships that put the interests of science first.

“Cleveland Clinic really has a knack for making that work,” Gack says. “That [approach] could really profit not only FIU and us but, honestly, the whole region.”

To close in on the actual delivery of life- impacting therapeutics, FIU is turning to business partners. While foundational- research funding comes primarily from the National Institutes of Health — grant totals for work at the CTS are expected to reach $45 million to $50 million annually by fiscal year 2026 — getting to human trials and, eventually, the marketplace requires an infusion of private capital.

Ronald J. Shebuski, president and CEO of Patmos Therapeutics, a Florida biotech startup, is excited about work out of Black’s own lab that identifies new molecular “targets” involved in respiratory illnesses and for which drugs can be developed.

A former senior scientist at Merck, a former director at what is today Pfizer and a former two-term adviser to the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation, Shebuski recognizes that pharma pipelines have gone dry. “There’s got to be a commercialization bent to the research,” he says of the critical need to pursue scientific inquiry to a consequential end. Together, he and Black have secured an NIH Small Business Technology Transfer grant in support of testing to validate the latter’s studies in advance of seeking investors.

The Long View

Human infrastructure remains more important than new buildings to long-term success. Educating young investigators, such as post-doctoral associate Alejandro Garcia Flores, will ensure that future projects reach fruition.

“It’s a very exciting opportunity for me for growth,” says Garcia, who marvels at the seamless integration of teams at CTS. “If we have an idea for an experiment, we can right away discuss it with others, especially if it’s the first time for me doing a certain [analytic procedure],” he says. “We don’t have to communicate with a far-away place that specializes in this.”

As Garcia and the others take advantage of synergies that push the pace of research, Black infuses modern momentum with old- school integrity.

“It’s an honor to be trusted with these resources,” he says of the moving parts that comprise a brave new world in the university’s medical science exploration, “so I can leave a dynamic research environment and have, hopefully, trained people who are smarter than I am, smart people who can interact, to keep this vision going. If we can do that, then we’re going to be very successful.”