By Katherine Eastburn

Galveston Daily News


Funding awards for research at the University of Texas Medical Branch were up by $14.8 million in fiscal year 2019, yielding the highest amount of research funding for the institution since 2009.

“I think it means that UTMB has been really investing in our infrastructure for research, putting processes in place to improve the quality of proposals we send to places like the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense,” said Dr. Randall Urban, chief research officer at the medical branch.
The largest increase in grant funding has come from those two federal programs, according to the provost’s office.
Talks back in 2016 led to the creation of an office called Grants Central that helps review grants, searches for funding sources and assists investigators with the grant process in general, contributing to the increase in grants awarded, Urban said.
The total amount of research funding granted to medical branch researchers in fiscal year 2019 was just more than $139.5 million.
That figure includes some grants awarded for clinical burns research through the medical branch’s partnership with Shriners Hospitals for Children Galveston.
All human subject research studies under that partnership were halted this year after a whistleblower’s claims of irregularities in some research involving burn patients and a subsequent investigation launched by the medical branch.
Medical branch officials have declined to elaborate on the shutdown and what it cost the medical branch, citing an ongoing investigation.
“You don’t draw down the amount granted until it’s spent,” Urban said. “A couple of awards were received by the burn research unit in 2019 and are still part of these numbers.”
Expenditures might decrease in fiscal year 2020 compared with 2019 because of the discontinuation of burn research, Urban said.
Urban cited growth in other areas, including infectious diseases research at the Galveston National Laboratory, one of a handful of bio-containment units in the country.
“We’re still very strong in infectious diseases with the national lab, which has continued to be more and more important nationally and internationally,” Urban said.
Other areas of growth include research on aging, neurosciences and vaccines. Under the leadership of Dr. Alan Barrett, the vaccine group has become an institute, the Sealy Institute of Vaccine Sciences, Urban said.
Research at the medical branch, while growing, hasn’t grown as rapidly as its clinical enterprises, with expansion of facilities and services on the mainland and a new hospital at the Galveston campus, but the clinical research office works to keep that growth aligned, Urban said.
“One of our main focuses from the clinical research office is to take these discoveries that scientists are making at UTMB and developing a culture of entrepreneurship,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean commercialization of research but more how we move that discovery forward to improve patient care.”
That process might involve protecting intellectual property and creating additional revenue sources for investigators, he said.
“To continue doing this kind of research, we have to continually find new revenue streams as federal funding decreases,” he said.
One enterprise aimed at doing that is the medical branch’s partnership with the Galveston Economic Development Partnership and a joint business incubator being developed at the old Customs Building, 1700 Strand, in Galveston.
“A lot of time we reach out to philanthropists for endowments when we need money for this and that,” Urban said. “Now, we’re going to the community and talking about a partnership where we can take some of our discoveries, meet with business people and turn it into something that benefits the whole community by starting new companies, creating jobs, building new buildings and benefiting other businesses that feed off those new enterprises.”
Talks with NASA are on the partnership’s radar and planned for the near future, Urban said.
Talks with NASA are on the partnership’s radar and planned for the near future, Urban said.