Bookmark and Share RSS IconRSS

Feature Stories by Date

Research Fast Facts

  • $101,908,000 in research funding was awarded to UConn Health Center investigators by external sources in 2010.
  • 76 patents have been awarded to Health Center researchers since 1980, representing a range of discoveries from cancer treatments to improved materials for dental braces.
  • 4 embryonic stem cell lines created for research endeavors along with a multitude of stem cells created from adult skin cells for research
  • 449 Number of scientists actively involved in biomedical research at the UConn Health Center.
  • 1,017,000 Number of gross square feet dedicated to research. The main building covers more than 2.178 million square feet.

Feature Story

Health Center Today, May 31, 2011

Advancing Care Through Research

By Noreen Kirk

Photo of Charles Loeser

Charles Loeser

This story is the sixth of a multi-part series on the history of the Health Center. The entire series can be read at the Health Centerís 50th Anniversary website.

A strong emphasis on research is one of the features that distinguish an academic health center from community hospitals. The UConn Health Center is active in basic science and clinical research. Having both ďunder one roof,Ē so to speak, accelerates the process of translating discoveries made in the laboratory to the care actually provided to patients.

Since 1980 alone, Health Center researchers have been issued 76 patents. They have made discoveries that have advanced scientific knowledge worldwide and resulted in untold benefits to patients. In many cases, these discoveries were licensed to companies or formed the basis for new companies. Health Center investigators, for example, developed a method of fabrication using dual lasers that was licensed to 3M Corp. and discovered a gene that helps in the diagnosis and treatment of glaucoma. They pioneered the use of heat-shock proteins as cancer vaccines and licensed the process to a biotechnology company, Antigenics. Fiber-reinforced composites and titanium wires developed by Health Center researchers have revolutionized orthodontia, and this technology was licensed to two Connecticut-based companies. The discovery of a way to use spider toxins as the basis for new pesticides spun off an entirely new company in the state.

The Health Centerís research endeavors expanded so much over the years that, in 1999, it opened the new, 11-story Academic Research Building, which provides 170,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratory space. This important expansion was one of the most significant milestones made under the leadership of Chancellor Dr. Leslie Cutler, ,who led the Health Center through most the í90s.

Under Dr. Richard D. Berlin, who chaired the Department of Physiology from 1973 to 2006 and served as associate dean for research from 1991 to 2006, the Health Center undertook a new, strategic approach to research. Under the new model, the Health Center identified areas of research it wanted to be involved in and sought to recruit, across departments, teams of researchers in those target areas who would collaborate with one another.

"This was a complete shake-up on the basic science side and a realignment of traditional departments into departments more responsive to what was going on in biomedical research," says former Dean Deckers. "It allowed us to bring in more research funding and skilled scientists, several of whom were also excellent teachers."

In 2010, the Health Center achieved a milestone by attracting more than $100 million in research funding from federal, industry and foundation sources. At any one time, it has hundreds of clinical trials under way. And it is a national leader in several very promising research areas.

Armed with an exceptional team of scientists, the Health Center is at the forefront of the exciting field of stem cell research. UConnís multidisciplinary effort also unites the Universityís commitment to regenerative medicine with pioneering research at a new state-of-the-art Cell and Genome Sciences Building adjacent to the UConn Health Center. UConn has been a major recipient of research funding through the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee. Since the committee was founded in 2005, the Health Center has received nearly $25 million in grants.

The Institute for Regenerative Engineering, headed by Laurencin, dean of the School of Medicine and distinguished professor of orthopaedic surgery and chemical, materials and biomolecular engineering, represents a new, multidisciplinary way to think about the formation of complex tissues. It focuses on helping millions of patients regain mobility and strength by regenerating tissue and, ultimately, limbs and organs. It represents the next generation of tissue regeneration because it combines the established principles of tissue engineering with morphogenesis, stem cell technology and the understanding of material cues for cellular growth and transformation.

The Health Centerís Alcohol Research Center conducts leading-edge research on the causes and treatment of alcohol dependence. The center has the distinction of having received continuous funding from the NIHís National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism since the centerís founding in 1978. Its 35 years of continuous funding makes it the longest-funded center, both at UConn and within the NIH/NIAAA structure.

Among the Alcohol Research Centerís most notable achievements is having conducted pharmacotherapy research that led to the federal Food and Drug Administrationís approval of naltrexone as a treatment for alcoholism.

"This was the first new medication approved by the FDA for alcoholism treatment in more than 50 years," says Dr. Victor Hesselbrock, the centerís principal investigator and scientific director. "It is now the front-line medication for treating people who have significant alcohol abuse disorder."

The center participated in Project MATCH, an NIAAA-funded, multisite study comparing the effectiveness of three types of psychotherapy for patients with alcohol problems. Today it is one of six sites participating in the NIAAAís Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism, a study of 1,800 families nationwide aimed at discovering the genes that underlie vulnerability to alcoholism. To date, the study has identified more than 30 such genes.

"We are involved in translational research," says Hesselbrock. "Our focus is to move research findings into practice and get them into the community."

The School of Dental Medicine also is actively engaged in "very contemporary, state-of-the-art research," says Dean MacNeil. The dental school has a number of grants under the stateís stem cell initiative. Last year, its faculty was awarded more than $8 million in research funding, much of it through the NIH. Projects dental school faculty are involved in include regenerating bone, systemic implications of local infections and the effects of cancer therapy. "If you adjust for size, we are about 8th in the country for research in dental schools," notes MacNeill.

The Health Center has a tradition of excellence in musculoskeletal research in both the medical and dental disciplines. National and international scientists and clinicians in its New England Musculoskeletal Institute are pursuing research in areas such as bone repair, osteoporosis, cartilage metabolism, soft tissue repair, stem cell therapies, tissue engineering and understanding the pathophysiology of bone metastasis. The NEMI promotes collaboration among clinicians and scientists in the medical and dental schools to develop new treatment strategies in bone and cartilage repair.

Researchers at the Health Centerís Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center are carrying out a variety of research projects, including exploring ways to slow progression of coronary artery disease, protect against heart attacks, improve the performance of failing hearts, detect heart damage earlier and achieve greater precision in detecting circulation blockage.

The Health Center is a national leader in Virtual Cell technology, which provides a unique computational environment for modeling and simulation of cell biology. It has been specifically designed to be a tool for a wide range of scientists, from experimental cell biologists to theoretical biophysicists.

These and other research initiatives are helping to shape the medical and dental care of the future.