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Research at KU Medical Center experiences tremendous growth

KU Medical Center has nearly doubled its federal research portfolio since 2017 and increased its clinical trial revenues by 45% since 2021.

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One of the three pillars of KU Medical Center’s mission, the research enterprise at KU Medical Center is thriving like never before.

The research enterprise at the University of Kansas Medical Center has grown enormously over the past several years, with faculty more invested than ever in making scientific discoveries to improve the health of Kansans and people around the world.

In fiscal year 2023, federally funded research spending at KU Medical Center hit an all-time high of more than $120 million, nearly doubling the amount of spending since fiscal year 2017 and reflecting an average annual rate of growth of 11.5% across that six-year span. Total research spending, supported by private sources as well as government grants and awards, reached $180 million in fiscal year 2023. That’s a 50% leap just since fiscal year 2019, when total expenditures on research at KU Medical Center hit $120 million.

“I continue to be amazed at the success of our research community. Our research enterprise thrived even in the face of a global public health crisis, and it continues to excel,” said Robert D. Simari, M.D., executive vice chancellor for KU Medical Center. “As one of the three primary pillars of our mission, research directly affects our ability to improve lives and communities through the other two pillars — education and health care — as we train future researchers and discover the next treatment or therapy.”

The University of Kansas Medical Center comprises the schools of Health Professions, Medicine and Nursing, as well as numerous centers and institutes.

“The research enterprise within the School of Health Professions has seen remarkable growth since 2016, more than quadrupling in size,” said Abiodun Akinwuntan, Ph.D., MPH, dean of KU School of Health Professions. “Currently, the school’s research portfolio exceeds $20 million and is poised for further expansion.”

Jacob Sosnoff, Ph.D., associate dean for research at KU School of Health Professions, noted that faculty at the school now view themselves as research leaders, rather than supporters, and that the school’s commitment to mentorship of faculty and its creation of grant management support have helped spur that growth.

“The school's research success is a testament to the unwavering dedication of our faculty, staff and students to improving the health and well-being of not only Kansas residents but also those beyond our state borders through discovery and innovation,” said Sosnoff.

At KU School of Nursing, investigators conduct research that not only advances health care but also addresses clinically relevant issues to improve health outcomes and the health care system as a whole.

“We’ve witnessed significant growth in research and scholarship at the school,” Sally Maliski, Ph.D., FAAN, dean of KU School of Nursing. “We’ve increased our research portfolio with funding from a variety of sources, and in addition to senior research faculty, we also have Ph.D. and postdoctoral students and assistant professors exploring promising research areas.”

Barbara Polivka, Ph.D., FAAN, associate dean for research at KU School of Nursing, noted that faculty at the School of Nursing and across the medical center have been providing more mentorship and input on grant proposals. The resulting stronger applications have led to more, larger awards from funders, including the Oncology Nursing Foundation and the Health Resources and Services Administration, for a variety of research topics including cancer, indoor air quality and asthma, communicating with older patients with dementia and sustaining the nursing workforce.

“Our vision is also to expand the breadth and depth of nursing science that we develop and conduct. We really want to make a difference, and that’s what our science is all about,” said Polivka.

KU School of Medicine, which has campuses in Kansas City, Wichita and Salina, is the largest of the medical center’s three schools. “The research enterprise at the School of Medicine has been enhanced by several new large, sponsored project awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies,” said Akinlolu Ojo, M.D., Ph.D., executive dean of KU School of Medicine. “The growth has been fueled by the increased success of our established faculty in getting their grants funded and the appointment of new highly accomplished physician and research scientists, including 12 new world-class research faculty appointed in the last year alone. And the medical center has invested millions of dollars in research infrastructure and equipment.”

Several large research grants have been awarded to KU Medical Center in just the past couple of years. In July 2022, the NIH awarded $27 million to support the Frontiers Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and the National Cancer Institute awarded The University of Kansas Cancer Center $13.8 million and designated it a “Comprehensive” cancer center, their highest level of recognition. In October 2022, a $12 million grant from the NIH’s Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program was used to create the new Kansas Center for Metabolism and Obesity Research.

But even the large grants do not tell the whole story. “Policy and administrative changes have helped grow and accelerate research,” noted Peter Smith, Ph.D., senior associate dean for research at KU School of Medicine. Faculty now can apply for “bridge grants” to cover gaps in funding they may experience from external funders and not lose momentum in their research. Moreover, KU School of Medicine has implemented a new system of allocating state funds to faculty and departments rewarding productivity. And there is also more support for faculty seeking research funding, including the Integrated Administrative Support Core, which helps faculty prepare applications for grants and awards.

Critical to the growth also has been the clinical integration of the medical center with The University of Kansas Health System, which happened in 2016. This integration resulted in enabling clinical departments to recruit research-heavy faculty through an academic fund.

“Our clinical departments were more on the sidelines, and we have really worked hard to get faculty who were already here to be more successful and recruit additional faculty to push translational research forward,” Matthias Salathe, M.D., vice chancellor for research at KU Medical Center. “And we have made changes in research administration, revamping the software infrastructure and support system to support large clinical trials.”

Revenues for clinical trials across the medical center, which were close to $35 million in fiscal year 2021, topped $50 million fiscal year 2023 — a substantial jump of 45% in just two years.

Salathe noted that not long ago, KU Medical Center was not in a position to be the initiating site of a multicenter clinical trial. But with changes in infrastructure, “we are on our way to being able to do so, and we can now execute research projects that before were almost impossible,” he said. “If we can keep up this work, there is a huge potential for large increases in clinical research.”

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