Under the leadership of Dr. Goodman, Vice Chancellor for Research, the UTHSC Office of Research has worked to expand the unique partnership between the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). A new emphasis on pursuing collaborative opportunities with ORNL was woven throughout his Operational Strategic Plan for Research, the 5-year blueprint for growing the research enterprise at UTHSC. In the four years since that plan’s implementation began, Dr. Goodman has worked to develop and deepen relationships with ORNL Institute Directors and to secure funding for projects of mutual interest and benefit to both institutions. He initially guided efforts to bring together UTHSC and ORNL researchers with overlapping areas of interest, focusing on two areas: drug discovery and development and precision medicine.
Major strides in all three areas were made in 2019. The Office of Research engaged the Institute of Life Sciences at ORNL to develop a collaborative project on Drug Discovery and Development. Working with Marti Head, PhD, director of the Joint Institute of Biological Sciences (JIBS) at ORNL, Dr. Goodman oversaw the launch of its first collaboration this year, a two-year venture focusing on cancer stem cells. The project objective is to identify molecular markers as therapy resistance develops in cancer stem cells. These markers will inform targeted delivery of new radionuclides in development at ORNL and chemotherapeutic drugs in development at UTHSC. He also saw that initial funding was provided for a joint project on precision medicine, in which JIBS will participate.
Additionally, Dr. Goodman is heading Chancellor Steve Schwab’s team working with Knoxville on several upcoming joint projects with ORNL in which UTHSC would be a major stakeholder. One of these projects is a workforce development venture. Another expands the Governor’s Chair program, which provides joint appointments at UT and ORNL for some of the nation’s top scientists. UTHSC currently has two Governor’s Chairs, one in Computational Genomics and one in Biomedical Informatics. UTHSC submitted proposals for two new chairs, which would be based at UTHSC’s Knoxville campus and working at ORNL. UTHSC would be both a funding partner and part of the recruiting team performing the international search for these chairs.
The first proposal seeks to address the effectiveness and safety of artificial intelligence as it relates to medical imaging and security. This chair would focus on constructing safeguards in AI used in medical diagnostics, potentially in a defined center in collaboration with scientists at the Health Data Sciences Institute at ORNL. The second proposal seeks to address Tennessee’s underrepresentation of non-white and economically disadvantaged white populations in genetic and genomic based precision medicine. This chair would lead genotype-phenotype analyses to identify novel genes associated with cancer, addiction, and a wide range of diseases affecting diverse pediatric and adult populations.
Both proposals contribute to the acceleration of UT’s new Oak Ridge Institute, which aligns existing centers of excellence and partnership to leverage resources, promote coordination and teamwork, and establish a central organization with immediate world-renowned status and recognition. In the Spring of 2020, the Institute received startup funds of $10 million to support its first year. UTHSC is adding further momentum to this emerging enterprise in a collaboration between UTHSC and ORNL to identify effective therapeutics to battle COVID-19.
UTHSC has been contributing to the global effort to combat coronavirus through research being done at its Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL). Under the direction of Colleen Jonsson, PhD, professor and Endowed Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology, UTHSC’s RBL worked in tandem with scientists at ORNL after their March discovery of chemical compounds that might work against the virus. Using supercomputing resources only available at the Oak Ridge facilities, the ORNL team performed simulations of more than 8000 compounds before narrowing them down to those they believed would react to an actual coronavirus sample. They then passed these findings to Jonsson, who is conducting tests of the digital remedy on actual coronavirus samples at the UTHSC RBL. Dr. Jonsson has written and submitted a white paper detailing these and future efforts with ORNL for a grant to support further targeted experiments.
All these collaborative endeavors undertaken by the Office of Research with ORNL over the past four years have significantly contributed to UTHSC’s growth. They have seeded studies that have led, and will continue to lead, to valuable new research findings; provided opportunities to garner extramural support; secured the attraction of top tier talent; and continued to elevate UTHSC’s standing on the national and world stage as a leading research institution. The Office of Research faces the coming year with the exhilarating knowledge that seeing these projects to fruition puts it on a fast-track not just to achieve, but to exceed, its goal of doubling research in 10 years.