Puzas Reveals New Visions for Research

Edward Puzas, Ph.D.
Edward Puzas, Ph.D.

As Edward Puzas, Ph.D., settles into his position as the new senior associate dean for basic science research – to which he was appointed in May – he’s brimming with vision.

The current director of orthopaedics research at URMC, Puzas recently wrapped up a two-year term as president of the United States Bone and Joint Decade (an organization charged with spurring research into and awareness of musculoskeletal health issues). Some of the techniques learned from the Decade – about keying up the public, even the national media, to become advocates for research – could energize science under way in Rochester, too.Pulse sat down with Puzas to learn more.

Pulse: One of your first goals – something you’ve learned from your experience with the Bone and Joint Decade – is to shake up our “research engine,” so to speak?

Puzas: Right. The current research paradigm works almost like a closed loop. For funding, researchers must convince the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the value of their work – how it will better the nation’s health. But the NIH and NSF grant money is based on clear directives handed down from Congress, which in turn, theoretically, is listening to the people who need treatment.

The problem is that each of these groups primarily focuses on the group immediately “above” it, meaning our scientists focus intently on drafting the most convincing proposals. But there’s a huge opportunity we’re missing. We can work “upstream” of NIH and NSF, by focusing more on rubbing elbows with senators and representatives, or by holding town halls and having our scientists dialogue directly with people suffering from diseases.

Pulse: That makes a lot of sense. Do you have any ideas how we can work more powerfully within our walls?

Snapshot: Stimulus’s Impact on University

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), signed into law this past February, has made available an additional $22 billion in research and development funding to be disbursed through the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and several other federal agencies.

As of Sept. 30, the University of Rochester has received $34.5 million in ARRA-related research funding, with monies supporting an array (131 total!) of promising projects, including:

  • Creating customized contact lenses to correct vision, since degenerative conditions can cause the shape of the eye to change over time.
  • Uncovering the molecular origins of Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
  • Finding new ways to combat the spread of HIV.

Details about these new ventures and more – all powered by ARRA funding – are available online at www.rochester.edu/news/arra/.

Puzas: Actually, yes. We see some of this happening already, but more and more, I’d love to see basic scientists teaming with clinicians who cover the same field. This M.D./Ph.D. “buddy team” approach not only accelerates translational research – the heart and soul of our URMC strategic plan – but that’s where the funding is, to be frank. The NIH and NSF are putting their money behind science that promises to yield real-world treatments in a short time.

Pulse:  What about better managing our research resources, like physical space and equipment?

Puzas: Just this September, we applied to the NIH’s National Center for Research Resources with a $10 million proposal to consolidate our existing technical cores and the corresponding specialty equipment. These cores – disciplines like flow cytometry, functional genomics, and proteomics – are spread out across our various URMC campuses (for instance, the Cardiovascular Research Institute on Bailey Road houses functional genomics). So, it’s hard for their directors to share equipment, like freezers, or to swap ideas amongst themselves. It’s also inconvenient for researchers, who must cart specimens to multiple locations for different analyses.

If awarded (we won’t hear until next summer), we could use the grant to gut the S-wing (the basement below the Medical School) and carve out a shared space there.

Pulse: Speaking of stimulus money, how have our efforts applying for these federal funds panned out?

Puzas: Well, we’re still aiming for more. The NIH has until September 2010 to spend the extra $10.4 billion they received this spring. But we’ve made some strides. Our success rate for funding – hovering around 19 percent – amounts to almost $35 million for research. (See sidebar to learn more about the University’s efforts to secure stimulus dollars.)

But there’s still more good news on the research front. We’re about halfway along our strategic plan goal to recruit about 40 new scientists. And even as we install steel piping for our new Clinical Translational Research Building, we’re aware that our CTSI renewal application, worth $20 million over the course of five years, is due next year. If accepted, these funds would further fuel our translational research efforts.

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