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Four leaders of San Antonio’s major research institutions – Dr. Larry Schlesinger at Texas Biomedical Research Institute, Taylor Eighmy at UTSA, Dr. William Henrich at UT Health San Antonio, and Adam Hamilton at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) – have teamed up to develop a plan to accelerate biomedical discoveries, attract talent and funding, and put San Antonio’s biomedical research ecosystem on the map nationally and internationally.
Although these institutions have collaborated in the past, the four leaders have worked together more closely and with military partners in the past several months to develop a more focused, strategic approach to collaboration.
“The reason that’s important is because that hasn’t been done effectively before,” said Henrich. “If we are successful in doing this, it’ll make San Antonio much more prominent in the minds of scientists around the country and in the public’s mind as a center for science.”
The idea is to raise San Antonio’s profile nationally to attract scientific talent, take on big challenges rather than incremental discoveries, attract federal grants to support large projects, and foster the creation of startup companies, Eighmy said.
Schlesinger will discuss these collaborative efforts in a keynote talk Tuesday at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce’s Healthcare and Bioscience Economic Impact Study Luncheon. The four leaders also are working on a white paper that will outline the strategic plans in greater detail and likely will be finished in the next month or two, according to Schlesinger.
Schlesinger, who took the helm of Texas Biomed last year, has spearheaded the effort, bringing ideas about how scientific resources in San Antonio can build off each other, said Ann Stevens, president of BiomedSA, a local nonprofit organization whose mission is to organize and promote San Antonio’s healthcare and bioscience assets to accelerate growth of the sector.
As head of the independent biomedical research institute, Schlesinger’s first order of business was to organize a strategic planning process to identify the institute’s key strengths and focus its mission.
The institute has two significant assets: the Southwest National Primate Research Center, one of only seven national primate research centers, and the only privately owned biosafety level-4 laboratory in the country. BSL-4 laboratories, which are equipped to take the highest levels of precaution, are used to conduct research on easily transmitted pathogens that can cause fatal disease, such as the Ebola virus. Leveraging these facilities, Schlesinger said he wants to position the institute to become a national and international center of excellence for infectious disease.
By clearly defining their respective missions, the institutions are able to work together without duplicating efforts, Eighmy said. UT Health San Antonio, for instance, has nationally recognized expertise in neurological disorders (particularly Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases), cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. UTSA’s areas of focus include health informatics and biomedical engineering, while SwRI focuses on applied engineering and the development of cutting-edge technologies.
Eighmy, who became president of UTSA last year, says the clearly defined areas of expertise “are quite important for us as a city, as a knowledge enterprise, and as an economic development engine for San Antonio.
“If you have differentiated talent and differentiated excellence that no one else has, then you act like a big magnet for folks that want to come here to work with us to solve the grand biomedical challenges of our time.”
With these well-defined areas of focus, “we are looking for opportunities for larger collaborative scientific projects to invest in,” Schlesinger said.
“A big part of it is to develop a scientific theme and then to invest in that theme and to enhance it,” Schlesinger said. “To me, that can be a unique leverage point for San Antonio relative to other cities. I think we have the spirit of collaboration in our city and will make it happen.”
Because competition for biomedical funding is stiffer than it’s ever been, having a focused, strategic approach is key. Federal funding for biomedical research has been stagnant for the last decade, while the number of scientists coming into the field is growing, Schlesinger said.
“Because of this hypercompetitive environment, there’s a premium on discoveries being larger,” he said. “By strategically collaborating, one can actually exploit each other’s expertise areas and build a bigger story.”
Henrich agreed: “No longer can one institution be expected to have all of the elements that are needed for the completion of a science effort, especially as sophisticated as those efforts are today.”
As part of their strategy, Texas Biomed and UT Health have been coordinating their recruitment efforts in hiring faculty and creating joint appointments. Schlesinger holds an adjunct appointment at UT Health, and faculty hired now and in the future could also hold joint appointments.
Sharing and collaboration also occurs at the graduate and postdoctoral levels. Texas Biomed, which is not a degree-granting institution, has a new mechanism to train graduate students from UT Health and UTSA, giving those students more opportunities and resources than a single institution could provide.
“We want to be a magnet for the best talent coming into our graduate and postdoctoral programs,” Schlesinger said.
Schlesinger has experience building and managing scientific collaborations, as well as training young scientists. Soon after becoming a full professor at the University of Iowa, he discovered his passion for developing robust scientific organizations and working with groups of scientists beyond his own laboratory.
That led him to Ohio State University, where he was the head of the Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity. He was also the director of the Medical Scientist Training Program at Ohio State, a program funded by the National Institutes of Health to train young physician-scientists. There, he trained more than 170 researchers.
“Schlesinger is a natural collaborator, and when he came to San Antonio he found fertile ground here for cultivating partnerships,” Stevens said. “In the process, he became an important catalyst for change.”
He has devoted his career to understanding how the tuberculosis bacterium invades and takes up residence in immune cells called macrophages. About 10 million people worldwide develop a full-blown infection each year, and tuberculosis (TB) is the No. 1 bacterial killer in the world.
Schlesinger’s work has paved the way for the development of host-directed therapies – therapies designed to re-arm the macrophages and bolster the immune system’s ability to fight infection. Together with next-generation antibiotics, host-directed therapies promise to be an effective strategy for treating this disease.
Two facilities that drew him to San Antonio were the primate research center and the Texas Center for Infectious Disease, the only hospital in the U.S. that is exclusively focused on treating TB patients, including some of the most complex cases across the nation. Both have the potential to accelerate the translation of basic discoveries to better treatments for TB patients.
“A lot of places have access either to the patients or to the basic science, but there’s a rare few places that can integrate from bench to bedside,” said Dr. Lisa Armitige, a physician-scientist at the TB center.
Schlesinger is working with Armitige and staff at the TB hospital to examine the differences in the immune systems between patients who are latently infected and those who have never been infected. He is also interested in studying what happens in the immune system of patients with active disease.
“I feel as if this is a transformational time, not only for Texas, but for the city of San Antonio. There’s a lot of talent coming in, there’s new leadership, the stage is set, the timing is right,” Schlesinger said.
“I do feel it’s our time to really raise the bar, to have San Antonio be a true recognized powerhouse in biomedical research. I think that we have the pieces and parts, if put together correctly, to solve great problems in the world.”