The recent NIH grant is designed to help Meharry researchers translate ideas into actions to help eliminate health disparities.
Meharry Receives Major Grant to Improve Minority Health
"There are a lot of very important discoveries in the lab and in animals … but a lot of it never sees the light of day," lamented Ayman Al-Hendy, MD, PhD, vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and scientific director for the Center for Women's Health Research at Meharry Medical College.
With the announcement of a $21.4 million National Institutes of Health grant — the largest in school history — the hope is that Meharry researchers will now have the necessary funding to translate bench science into new therapies, diagnostic tests and preventive measures to improve the health of the average American. The first check in the five-year grant from the NIH's National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) arrived on October 1 and was in excess of $4 million. "It's the biggest check I've ever seen," Al-Hendy said with a laugh, then quickly added, "… so far. Hopefully, we'll see more in the future."
The grant is part of NCRR's Research Centers in Minority Institutions Clinical and Translational Research program. Al-Hendy said the NIH has emphasized the importance of translational research for the last several years. "The National Institutes of Health's main mandate is the improvement of health for Americans," he pointed out. Although the minority grant program was a new addition for fall 2009, Al-Hendy noted the NIH began funding similar translational research in majority institutions, including Vanderbilt, several years ago.
He will serve as co-principal investigator for this institutional grant along with James E.K. Hildreth, MD, PhD, director of Meharry's Center for AIDS Health Disparities Research and a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine. The two physician researchers will oversee the establishment and growth of the Meharry Clinical and Translational Research Center (MeTRC), which has been described as a "center without walls."
"We know that African Americans are disproportionately affected by diseases such as breast cancer, prostate cancer and HIV/AIDS," said Meharry President and CEO Wayne J. Riley, MD, MBA, MPH. "MeTRC paves the way for researchers to determine why these disparities exist and to find new treatments that will close the gap. With this grant from the NIH, Meharry will be able to establish a national model for health disparities research making us a global leader in this area."
Al-Hendy said the objective of the virtual center is "to fund all competitive, meritorious clinical research activities by any Meharry faculty." The grant money will be used for community research, collaborative projects and pilot programs. Although there is no limitation by specific disease or condition, Al-Hendy said, "I don't think it's in our interest to be everything to everybody so we want to build on areas where we have strength and a track record."
He added that a 10-member panel made up of five clinicians and five doctoral-level scientists would review all funding requests. "The goal is to select the most promising applications, which will ultimately lead to new cures or new diagnostic tools to reduce and eventually eliminate health disparities," Al-Hendy observed.
To improve outcomes, he said clinicians and scientists need to focus on one of four things — "Number one, you have to be able to develop new cures; number two, new diagnostics; number three new prevention techniques; and number four, finally, you need to be able to diffuse these into the community."
The NCRR only funded three such grants nationally. In addition to Meharry, grants were awarded to Morehouse School of Medicine in Altanta and to Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. "We really do a very good job of focusing on diseases that affect our own minority communities," Al-Hendy said of Meharry and the other organizations selected. He noted Meharry has a good relationship with the African American community in Nashville and therefore enjoys heavier participation in clinical trials. He estimated the recruitment and retention rate of minorities in the clinical trials already ongoing at Meharry would be close to double that of local trials conducted by non-minority organizations. "So now with this grant, we will build on that," he said.
In addition to the anticipated influence on health, an offshoot of such a large grant is the positive impact it has on opportunities for minority researchers. "At Meharry, we are the number one producer of African-American PhDs in the country," Al-Hendy said. The additional research funds are expected to increase the need for trainees, research associates and student researchers. However, Al-Hendy was quick to say that grant funding will not exclude any qualified researcher. Regardless of race or ethnicity, he said, "Anyone with the right motivation and right qualifications is invited to participate."
The bottom line, said Al-Hendy, is this infusion of grant funding "will allow Meharry to contribute to the national movement toward reducing and eliminating health disparities. We're just really grateful to the NIH."