FIU in 2020 set out to create a biomedical research center that turns the traditional modus operandi on its head. A young university that had earned status as a top research-producing institution in record time, FIU applied its signature forward-looking, no-holds-barred approach to creating a hub for drug discovery.
“One of the things that is clear now, with big data and big science, is that the days of an investigator working in their lab, not talking to anybody and publishing the great paper every now and again, that's gone,” says Center for Translational Science (CTS) Director Stephen Black, the scientist in charge of it all. “It takes a village now, so everybody works together.”
With the ultimate goal of translating basic scientific discoveries into viable therapies for human diseases as quickly as possible, the CTS set up shop in the former home of a biotech institute in Port St. Lucie, on the Atlantic coast, about two hours north of the university’s main campus in Miami. Black, an expert researcher in pulmonary vascular disease, came on board and began tearing down walls, literally. Once closed-off labs dedicated to individual teams are gone, replaced with dozens of workbenches in wide-open spaces to encourage shop talk and sharing across the aisles. State-of-the-art equipment goes into adjacent rooms for all to use.
And researchers love it.
“You want to crack all these barriers, get people enthusiastic,” says Ting Wang, who came to the CTS after serving as scientific director of the pulmonary and endothelial research core at the University of Arizona Health Sciences. “Here it is new,” he explains of what lured him to Florida. “We geared up from scratch.”
Says Heidi Mansour, an authority on drug delivery with nine patents to her name, “[The CTS] has a lot of incredible experts, and I can tap into that, and they can tap into me and bring the synergy, and so we bring our strengths.” Her arrival, in particular, has elicited excitement not only for her own work around lung surfactant replacement therapeutics in respiratory distress syndrome, lung infections in patients with cystic fibrosis and lung transplantation but for knowledge she can bring to move along others’ projects in a variety of areas.
Already, the take-no-prisoners approach is paying off. In less than three years, grant awards have swelled from a single, initial $500,000 to $13 million. Such eye-popping numbers come courtesy of a team of rockstar scientists. Fifteen principal investigators – working on neurodegenerative disorders, infectious illnesses and spinal cord injury, among others – now each have multiple projects and a full team under their purview. That number is expected to grow to 30 within the next few years. Black foresees would-be investors and startup companies moving into the area, a hoped-for development in which he has taken an active interest.
Meanwhile, back at the main campus, 125 miles south, folks in the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work have found their own worlds expanded as they forge productive connections with colleagues at the CTS and take advantage of testing capacity there.
Harnessing the Power of Many
Besides cross-pollination with other researchers within FIU, the CTS continues to expand partnerships with outside organizations. Cleveland Clinic Tradition Hospital and its separate Florida Research & Innovation Center have natural affinities with the CTS, and the three are situated in the same office park.
Beyond this triangle lie even greater possibilities. Within a 40-mile radius of the CTS sit a USDA research center, the University of Florida’s institute for biomedical innovation and Florida Atlantic University’s neuroscience institute, to name a few would-be collaborators.
Further driving the possibility of broad cooperation is the prospect of working with potential partners such as Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in nearby Fort Pierce, NASA and related private companies in support of the proposed "BioDiscovery Coast Innovation Engine.” These and the above-mentioned entities have in the past jointly submitted a grant proposal to promote discovery and commercialization around treatments for human as well as agricultural diseases, largely by looking within Florida’s unique ecosystem at compounds with potential medicinal properties.
“No institution can do everything by itself," says Adel Nefzi, a seasoned research chemist who developed a library at the CTS of some 35 million drug-like molecular compounds. The collection has impacted advances related to cancer, inflammation, diabetes, antimalarial and bacterial resistance and more.
“All of us,” Nefzi continues of the organizations that have thrown in, “we complement each other, bring our own skills, so for sure we can do something.”
Educating the Up-and-Coming
Doctoral student Marissa Pokharel is thriving on the ethos of such camaraderie and optimism. She came to FIU from California to study biomedical science in the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and soon after moved to Port St. Lucie to work in Black’s lab. (Black also holds the position of chair of the college’s department of cellular biology and pharmacology.) There she investigates the role of mitochondria in sepsis-associated acute lung injury and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
Pokharel shared findings last year at the first South Florida Translational Research Symposium, held at the center and dedicated to students from FIU and elsewhere. She cannot say enough about the opportunity to work in an open, highly active facility.
“It’s more [similar to] industry experience," she says of the setup and quick tempo at the CTS. Interested in employment one day in the labs of a pharmaceutical firm, she sees the current opportunity as an ideal deep dive for someone with her aspirations. “I talk to everyone,” she says. “I’m getting all these different mentors, and I’m learning a ton.”
Mansour, the drug-delivery expert, has a long history of turning out researchers ready to fly on their own and considers such activity critical to supporting the marathon that is drug discovery and commercialization.
"Training the next generation is very important,” Mansour says, “getting them set up to be successful in their careers, not only as scientists but, more importantly, as leaders in their scientific area of expertise.”
Thanks in part to the CTS and its stream of fire-tested young investigators, humankind’s greatest scourges will someday be a thing of the past.