UT Health San Antonio, seven others join in $46M of NIH funding

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio joined seven institutions to win $46 million in federal funding geared toward translational research —  scientific discoveries that lead to drugs or treatments.

UT Health San Antonio plans to use the funding from the National Institutes of Health over the next seven years to hire and train translational scientists, share electronic health records, improve procedures for clinical trials and establish a regional trial network to study Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, cancer and diabetes, said Dr. William Henrich, the organization’s president.

“San Antonio and the surrounding South Texas area is truly a real treasure for clinical research and important for clinical research going forward in the country,” said Henrich, who is a kidney disease specialist.

RELATED: UT Health San Antonio planning $100M expansion to address a South Texas problem: Alzheimer’s disease

The funding comes as San Antonio’s largest bioscience players have been garnering recognition as first-rate researchers and raising millions of dollars in federal funding to build on basic research to develop drugs and medical procedures. These institutions are growing at significant rates, some building massive medical centers and strengthening ties with the private sector to create new revenue streams.

With UT Health San Antonio set in the nation’s largest majority-Hispanic city, Henrich is focused on reducing disparities in the region. He stressed the importance of conducting more clinical trials here as the state’s Hispanic population has become slightly larger than its white population. Statewide, both demographics represent about 40 percent of Texas’ 29.5 million residents, U.S. census reports show.

“San Antonio is an ideal place to do your studies because this demographic is what our nation is going to look like in the years and decades to come,” Henrich said. “We are truly at the best place to understand the basic and root cause of disease that will affect a large portion of the country in the years to come.”

The health system this year began construction on its $100 million Center of Brain Health, a 100,000-square-foot facility expected to open on the Northwest Side campus in 2025. Local medical professionals have promoted the expansion as a direct response to the increased number of Alzheimer’s disease cases in the region and studies showing Latinos are disproportionately affected.

In Texas, about 400,000 people have Alzheimer’s, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. Nationally, the state ranks fourth by the number of cases and second by the number of Alzheimer’s-related deaths. Studies show Latinos are more heavily affected — and that it’s especially prevalent in South Texas. In the Rio Grande Valley, a majority-Latino region spanning four counties, people 65 and older are about twice as likely to be diagnosed with dementia as people in the same age range elsewhere in the United States, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Clinical trials are expensive, can take years to complete and fail often. Drugs may seem promising when tested in labs and on animals, only to be found ineffective or toxic in humans. It’s a challenging process plagued with procedural obstacles.

ALSO READ: UT Health gets $10 million to reduce teen pregnancy in South Texas

Many medical professionals believe the process of translational research helps jump-start drug development. But as part of the backstory, critics argue that federal agencies should focus on funding basic scientific research in academia instead of streamlining discoveries to avoid what they claim has contributed to the fast-paced commercialization of medicine.

With the new NIH funding, UT Health San Antonio and others plan to use tools powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning to collect data sets on regional populations.

“There’s a tremendous amount of data out there,” said Dr. Robert A. Clark, professor of medicine and director of the Institute for Integration of Medicine and Science, which administers the federal funding program at UT Health San Antonio. “You can tap into those data and make use of them for health-related research and understanding health disparities at a better level.”

At a time when big companies have been harvesting user data, the idea of collecting regional population data spurs the question of whether UT Health San Antonio and others will sell the information.

“It will help us develop better ways to tap into new sources of revenue,” Clark said. “In that sense, I would say yes, although I think that’s not our major motivation here.”

Meanwhile, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, one of the named funding recipients, has made efforts to expand its reputation with the government and pharmaceutical companies as it’s undergoing an expansion and modification plan estimated at more than $300 million.

The San Antonio nonprofit wants to increase its workforce from 430 to 700 in the next decade and to build lucrative partnerships with companies like Pzifer and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals after contracting with the firms to study and develop COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.

Texas Biomed did not respond to emailed questions about the award.

Besides Texas Biomed, the organizations collaborating with UT Health San Antonio to share in the funding are the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School and College of Pharmacy, the University of Texas at San Antonio, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, San Antonio Military Health System, South Texas Veterans Health Care System and University Health, according to a news release.

UT Health San Antonio is among 60 institutions across the U.S. to receive funding from the NIH’s Clinical and Translational Science Award Program. It’s a competitive award, with winners coming from prestigious Ivy League institutions and West Coast medical facilities.

ALSO READ: UT Health San Antonio helps pioneer use of AI-enabled diabetes control

The NIH program is designed to “develop innovative solutions that will improve the efficiency, quality and impact of the process for turning observations in the laboratory, clinic and community into interventions that improve the health of individuals and the public,” according to the agency’s website.

The NIH created the program over a decade ago to help move new discoveries “through the pipeline, where they’re going to have an impact on patients in public health,” Clark said.

“As you can imagine, there’s lots of things that can get in the way of progress,” he said. “Sometimes it’s paperwork. Sometimes it’s lack of resources. Sometimes it’s lack of a well-trained workforce. Sometimes it’s embedded health problems, health disparities that have been really difficult to tackle through the usual approaches.”

This is the fourth time that UT Health San Antonio and partners have joined forces to win such funding, with $33 million in 2008, $26 million in 2013 and about $26 million in 2018, Clark said. The funding was distributed over five years compared witho the current seven-year stretch.

New plans call for UT Health and others to work with community members to plan future health programs tailored to local medical needs. The community engagement function includes so-called translational advisory boards, which are county-level groups of stakeholders who discuss unmet local health needs.

Also, the institutions aim to hire and train translational researchers to apply the approach to study how basic science and applied research can have real-world impacts. The job includes knowing how information is shared, accepted and applied.

“Workforce development is really a major part of this, and it has been right from the beginning,” Clark said.

Afaf Saliba, a fifth-year doctoral candidate, is an alumni of the translational science training program at UT Health San Antonio, which uses the federal funding program.

ALSO READ: UT Health San Antonio gets $4 million to improve cancer outreach and outcomes for Latinos

She has taken courses on translational science and applied her skills to researching metabolic diseases and converting discoveries into therapies at the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine. She has developed mouse models to identify therapeutic targets for progressive kidney disease at the Center for Precision Medicine.

“Translational science is a process of multiple approaches that help everyone learn how science could benefit the community. It’s been there for a long time, but now they are normalizing it,” she said. “They train us how to become better researchers, more ethical, how to learn, how to collaborate and how to become a mentor.”

She continued: “Without this program, I really can’t imagine how my identity as a researcher would have been formed.”

Saliba, a wife and mother of three children, said she is on the “verge of finishing” her dissertation on the effect of kidney disease on brain health.

“There’s many chronic kidney disease patients who do not only suffer from kidney disease — and this is devastating — but they also suffer from cognitive decline, and eventually they are prone to develop dementia,” she said. “I’m trying to find ways to help them have a better quality of life and preserve their brain.”

Her research has gained recognition. She won a Translational Science Award from the Association for Clinical and Translational Science as the Outstanding Predoctoral Trainee of 2022.

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