Partners in Research: Front-Row Participants in Discovery

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On an apple-crisp fall morning, several men and women gathered at a campus conference center configured like a classroom. Soon, scientists take turns at the podium, show slides and dive into plain-spoken but exact explanations of scientific theories.

The audience members, who listen thoughtfully and ask detailed questions, are a cadre of deeply caring community activists with a zest for science and a passion for helping other people.

They are Partners in Research (PIR). Georgetown University Medical Center’s PIR is an innovative philanthropic program that gives donors front-row seats to witness and join in the biomedical discovery path from the laboratory bench to the patient bedside and back.

In little more than a year, these public-spirited, action-oriented community members have given $145,000 in grant money to jump start promising basic science laboratory experiments aimed at developing treatments for a myriad of diseases and disorders.

Jump Starting Basic Science Projects

On this October day, the partners award a total of $70,000 to two laboratory projects that they selected out of four designed by Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) scientists who believe their research eventually will translate into treatments for medical patients:

  • Rebecca Riggins, Ph.D., assistant professor of oncology, is testing a newly discovered drug that stops the transformation of a healthy tumor suppressor gene into a rogue one that triggers breast and brain cancers.
  • John VanMeter, Ph.D., associate professor of neurology, is designing a new way, inspired by personalized medicine, to determine drug doses tailored to the individual patient. He is collaborating with Christopher Albanese, PhD, assistant professor of molecular oncology, and Valeriy R. Korostyshevskiy, PhD, assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics.

Partners will follow the scientists’ progress, visit the labs and be the first to learn the results of the research at a showcase event in the spring.

GUMC fundraisers are intent on finding money for the other two, no less worthy, projects presented to PIR:

• Use of sophisticated imaging technology to zero in on the behavior stimulated in the brain when young adults view graphic warning labels on cigarette packages.
• Discovery of how to prevent premature, increased rates of heart failure, stroke and hypertension in people with HIV/AIDS.

A Galvanized Quest

PIR’s generous but relatively modest grants could be the key to transform such scientific vision to treatment reality. The process is lengthy, averaging 10 to 12 years between a laboratory-spawned idea to U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of a treatment.

It is wildly expensive, fraught with disappointments and carries no guarantee of success, a long-term commitment in which downs sometimes out number ups.

Further complicating advances in biomedical research is the economic crisis of continuing decline in federal funding from the National Institutes of Health, the government’s conglomerate of biomedical research entities such as the National Cancer Institute that also dispenses grants for scientists.

The generosity of those who believe in the art of science and the science of medicine is fueled by interest in helping others, a roller-coaster economy and declining federal funds for biomedical research. The knowledge that scientists and physicians have cracked all but the most confounding and deadly diseases like brain disorders and the most aggressive of cancers galvanizes the quest.

Partnerships Forged

PIR has roots in Doctors Speak Out (DSO), a community education program started in 2009 by philanthropists in the community, led by Alma Gildenhorn. “This is what we had in mind: an engaged community comes together with all these brilliant minds,” she says.

DSO regulars became increasingly enthralled with medical research so they came up with the idea of donating to GUMC a thousand dollars each and asking their friends and acquaintances to do the same. This 2011 collaboration launched PIR.

Robert Clarke, Ph.D., D.Sc., dean for research at GUMC, became an advocate for the unique partnership. He invited top GUMC investigators to submit brief research proposals that were reviewed by a committee of experts from various research backgrounds that followed the stringent proposal review guidelines used by the National Institutes of Health.

Involvement has been key. The women hosted coffees in their homes, partners began to join, and lay people invested in scientific research that could make a difference. The adventure of discovery was beginning. They questioned and learned, talked to the investigators and toured laboratories. Soon enough, they had raised $75,000, and that year selected three projects to each receive $25,000.

Vivien Marion, GUMC’s senior development director, is keenly aware of the program’s unique role in philanthropy, “Partners in Research has enabled individuals to do what none could do on their own – fund a biomedical research project at a top tier academic research center – with the potential to reveal the next great medical breakthrough.”

By Victoria Churchville, GUMC Advancement
(Published Nov. 14, 2012)