The University of Kentucky Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) has received a $23.5 million, four-year award from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health. This is the third time the CCTS has successfully competed for the prestigious Clinical and Translational Award (CTSA), with continuous funding since 2011 totaling $65.4 million in research dollars.
“For the past 15 years, CCTS has catalyzed clinical and translational discoveries through an integrated, transformative research environment aimed at improved health, with an emphasis on Central Appalachia,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “This continued funding is a testament to the incredible talent we have at this institution and our enduring promise to improve health outcomes in Kentucky.”
Founded in 2006 with the mission of accelerating discoveries to improve health, the CCTS is a disease-agnostic center that supports research from bench to bedside to community, with particular focus on Appalachia. The center provides a robust research infrastructure for all types of health research, including pilot funding, training and career development for the next generation of translational researchers, a full spectrum of research support services, community engagement resources, multidisciplinary mentors and connections to local and national research networks.
“It was great to join President Capilouto and the rest of the University of Kentucky CCTS team to announce today’s transformational award. With the grant we are announcing today, UK’s capacity to help Kentuckians with groundbreaking health care innovations will only grow,” said U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “I’ve been proud to help the University of Kentucky develop into a competitive research institution and bring new jobs and industries to the Bluegrass. With today’s announcement, we are further cementing Kentucky’s role as a national hub for medical research and technological development.”
Over the past 15 years, the center has introduced new efficiencies and programs to support clinical trials, trained scores of researchers and staff, enhanced regulatory supported, expanded UK’s biomedical informatics infrastructure, increased entrepreneurial support for researchers and helped establish innovative new centers and resources, both at UK and in the Appalachian region.
The vital role of the CCTS was never more evident than in 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the CCTS leapt into action, leveraging its expert and responsive infrastructure, said CCTS Director Philip Kern, M.D. The center rapidly established a COVID-19 biobank, launched a pilot funding program specifically for COVID, and operationalized a hugely successful COVID-19 vaccine trial unit.
Janssen Pharmaceuticals (of Johnson & Johnson) approached UK vaccine researcher Richard Greenberg, M.D., to lead a site for the phase-three clinical trial of their COVID vaccine, and the CCTS infrastructure made it happen, Kern said. Within 83 days, a newly built COVID vaccine clinical trial unit was up and running. Nearly 900 Kentuckians, including many front-line workers, participated in that trial which got real vaccines in people’s arms two months before any vaccine had received emergency use authorization (EUA).
“With CCTS leadership, UK — with subsites at Baptist Health Lexington and Norton Healthcare in Louisville — became the top enrolling site in the world for the phase three trial whose data led to the EUA for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” Kern said.
“The success of that first COVID vaccine trial at UK paved the way for four more vaccine studies at the institution, three adult studies which the CCTS fully implements and a pediatric vaccine study it provides support for.”
With its new round of funding, the CCTS plans to expand funding opportunities including a new mechanism to support research on climate change and human health; ramp up its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; and build more research partnerships with other institutions. The center will also develop a new team science training resource to provide personalized coaching to multidisciplinary research teams.
“Through its cumulative, multipronged efforts, the CCTS has been a driver of UK research expansion from $285.1 million in extramural awards in 2015 to $333.4 million in 2018," said Lisa Cassis, Ph.D., UK vice president for research.
The CCTS pilot funding program has, to date, yielded a 20-fold return on investment and resulted in 3,308 peer-reviewed publications with more than 39,000 citations between 2012 and 2017 alone. Pilot grants through the Appalachian Translational Research Network, of which the CCTS was a founding member, have seen a return on investment of nearly 18 to 1.
The CCTS also provides essential clinical and translational research education and training for undergraduates, faculty and staff through its “career development highway.” To date, 22 junior faculty have completed its KL2 career development program (five more are currently participating), and 41 pre- and post-docs have completed the TL1 clinical and translational science training program. More than 1,000 professional, medical, dental, pharmacy and clinical psychology students at UK have taken the CCTS’ Introduction to Clinical Research course, and the CCTS was instrumental in developing UK’s certificate and degree programs in clinical and translational science. The center additionally runs six seminar series throughout the academic year.
Since 2018, the CCTS has also led the DREAM Scholars program for faculty in health equity research and/or from minority populations, and in 2019 it launched a similar program, SPARK, for undergraduates.
The CCTS reaches far beyond campus, too. Its innovative Community Leadership Institute of Kentucky has partnered with 43 community leaders from 28 Appalachian counties to empower them with skills and funding to conduct needed health research in their community and implement local solutions. Meanwhile, the CCTS Community Seed Grant program has provided 21 small grants to partners in Appalachia for projects that address priority health needs; support for financial management, human research advice, and data collection is also provided. A community health educator in Johnson County, Kentucky, for example, leveraged her seed grant and her personal health journey to help her community members prevent diabetes; her work was even featured in a KET documentary.
“UK HealthCare has been a partner of the CCTS since its inception and we are especially proud to work with them over the past year to 18 months with these historic, lifesaving COVID vaccine studies,” said Mark F. Newman, M.D., UK executive vice president for health affairs. “While we are still struggling with the current pandemic, we are learning more every day and finding new ways to overcome these challenges and that is due to research performed here at CCTS.”