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Expansion of research institute expected to spark growth in Roanoke

Expansion of research institute expected to spark growth in Roanoke

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Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic on Tuesday will break ground to expand their research institute, which the partners expect will spark a wave of educational, medical and economic growth in Roanoke.

Leaders said the $90 million project will be home to 25 additional research teams, hundreds of students and faculty and an oncology center for dogs and cats.

Tech President Timothy Sands said the building “will jump-start our efforts to translate the discoveries that are made in our health science and technology partnership into companies, and attract partners globally to Roanoke.”

Tech and Carilion also have created a $15 million venture capital fund that will help startups take root around its campus. They expect to spin off more lab discoveries into new businesses, and they anticipate that other businesses will develop around the campus to support the additional faculty and students.

“One of the things that is important to me and to Tim Sands is we don’t want VTC to be the end game. We are the catalyst for innovation, entrepreneurism and economic growth for this region,” said Carilion CEO Nancy Agee. “That’s where we see the end game as more a continued growth and change, and real excitement to grow the economy.”

“We have grand visions, and this is just the beginning of the second phase,” Sands said.

The first phase began not quite a decade ago, when Virginia Tech and Carilion in 2008 joined forces to build a small medical school and research institute on a brownfield along the Roanoke River. The city had obtained the property and razed industrial buildings to make way for Carilion’s growth and for other businesses to grow around biomedicine.

By the time the school opened in 2010, Carilion was in the process of turning its collection of hospitals and primary care practices into a clinic with integrated patient care.

The partners’ model for the medical school included an extra component, requiring students to become heavily involved in research. This helped Carilion attract specialists and subspecialists while doubling its medical staff to 1,000 physicians. It also helped Tech attract researchers in health sciences, some with international reputations.

“I don’t believe we would be where we are if not for the relationship that we’ve created with Virginia Tech,” Agee said. “This isn’t about buildings but about staff we’ve brought in: physicians, providers, researchers, teachers, medical students. We created this health science ecosystem that’s pretty amazing.”

The growth forced the partners last year to decide whether to be satisfied or to grow. They opted to expand research. The state agreed to pay for part of it through a bond issue. The building is expected to cost about $83 million for construction and $6 million to equip. Carilion is contributing $2 million worth of land and $11 million toward construction, while Virginia Tech is contributing $29 million and the state’s share will be $48 million, according to Tech’s budget office.

Sands said Tech is working on plans to develop housing and other services to support faculty and students and is looking to involve the private sector and donors.

“There is certainly a role for philanthropy that’s going to be key here. It’s not going to just be the revenue that we normally get through the university,” he said. “There’s going to have to be additional contributions from the community and our donors. We are working with them to see the potential. It’s a great conversation because most of our friends and alumni who are in the Roanoke area see the impact of the partnership with Carilion Clinic and they are very anxious to be part of that.”

This week’s groundbreaking has a bittersweet note. One of the early architects of the public-private partnership, former Carilion CEO Dr. Ed Murphy, died Oct. 15. He and Charles Steger, who was then president of Tech, “were completely committed to the importance of science and research to advance medicine and health as well as the economic vitality of Roanoke and all of southwest Virginia,” said Mike Friedlander, executive director of the research institute and Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology.

“I can’t help but think that Ed will be looking down with his characteristic satisfied smile on the groundbreaking as we launch this next phase of the shared biomedical research enterprise here in Roanoke,” he said.

Different building design

Deciding what would go in the new building involved much discussion.

“Designing what we want was not so much a building but designing our areas of focus. Carilion has strengths. Virginia Tech has strengths, so it was how can we capitalize on those in five areas of focus,” Agee said.

The expansion will build on the types of research already taking place in Roanoke and Blacksburg and will focus on brain health and disorders, biomaterials-body device interfaces, cardiovascular sciences, cancer, metabolism and obesity, and infectious disease and immunity.

“We’re going to have niches,” Friedlander said. For example, a scientist in immunology might be studying the interface of nervous and immune systems, which ties in with brain research, for which the institute is best known.

With Tech’s growth in that specialty, Carilion has been able to attract neurosurgeons and neurologists.

Carilion, in trying to work toward a healthier population, can draw from the work on obesity and metabolism.

The new building will include a room to measure metabolism.

“Every molecule of carbon dioxide that you breathe out, every little sweat bead that comes out from every pore in your skin is measured,” Friedlander said. “You can perfectly precisely measure somebody’s entire metabolic profile.” Over time, these measurements can track changes from certain diets or exercises.

The new building will appear slightly different than the others on the campus since the ground floor will not be reserved for parking. Instead, the land will be raised above the flood plain so that the ground floor can hold sophisticated imaging equipment and provide space for the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to develop a Comparative Oncology Research Center.

“We are going to take any small animal — dog, cat, ferret — any with cancer. We are essentially moving oncology from Blacksburg to Roanoke,” said oncologist veterinarian Nick Dervisis. The center will offer surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

Some Roanoke scientists already collaborate with the vet school to test compounds on dogs that develop the same type of brain tumors found in people.

Dervisis said the goal is to have clinical trials underway for all types of cancer so that pet parents can have more options. He hopes also to raise funds for an endowment because people often can’t afford thousands of dollars in care and must forgo treatments. His dream is to have a fund that pays for all cancer care whether the dog or cat is in a trial or is receiving the standard care.

In that way, researchers can gain a better understanding of treating cancer.

“If we are successful with that happening in Roanoke, I want nothing else from life,” he said. “I will sleep so much better at night because right now it’s talking about cost, how many thousands of this, how many thousands of that, and seeing people crying because they would do anything and put a mortgage on their house to pay the bill.”

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