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The Roanoke research institute will hire 14 more researchers dedicated to cancer, neuro-engineering and computational neuroscience.

A charitable foundation in Richmond has committed $50 million to Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

The Red Gates Foundation’s gift — equal to the two largest donations ever made to Virginia Tech — will focus in large part on recruiting 14 researchers dedicated to cancer, neuro-engineering and computational neuroscience to the Roanoke institute. One-third of the gift will support six faculty-led Fralin Institute research projects that are already underway and centered on cancer and brain disorders in adults and children.

The Red Gates Foundation is endowed by the estate of Richmond businessman Hunter Goodwin, who died of cancer at age 51 in January 2020. The foundation works to fund innovative research with difference-making potential, the foundation’s executive director, Jeff Galanti, said in a Virginia Tech news release.

Virginia Tech and Fralin officials said they were excited by the donation. It will bolster the work the institute is already doing under founding Executive Director Michael Friedlander’s leadership, while providing funds to further develop its research capabilities, university President Tim Sands said.

Tim Sands. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Sands, in an interview Monday, said that he visits the Roanoke-based institute frequently, often with university guests who are touring the facility.

“I go at least once every month or two months, which is probably excessive, but I learn something new every time,” he said. “I could go today, and it’s been a week since I was last there, but I would learn something new and interesting.”

The other two $50 million donations have come in the past five years and both center on the university’s research potential. Roanoke businessman and health care executive Heywood Fralin delivered the major gift that gave a name to an institute that started in 2010 with only one employee — executive director Friedlander.

The second gift, from Boeing in 2021, established the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, focused on graduate students in technology and scheduled to open in Alexandria in 2024.

Virginia Tech teamed with state officials and Carilion Clinic in 2007 to announce the biomedical research institute and medical school, with funding from all three of those sources and philanthropic donations. 

Michael Friedlander. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

“I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t say we are extremely excited, enthusiastic about this,” Friedlander said of the Red Gates Foundation gift. “Money is a big part of what it takes to do modern medical research. It just costs a lot these days and we’re living in a world where we’re competing for grant funds to do the research all the time, and it’s a constant battle. And we do quite well in that space.

“But to be able to actually realize something like this, a major investment into our research program over a five-year period, is an incredible boon. It’s going to enable us to move more quickly. It’s going to enable us to move to a higher level of research, support, than we would have otherwise if we were just in the grant world.”

Before Goodwin died, he made a “significant financial contribution” to what would become the nonprofit Massachusetts-based Break Through Cancer, according to the organization’s website. Goodwin’s estate teamed with his parents, Virginia Tech graduate William Goodwin Jr. and his wife, Alice, to announce their $250 million pledge toward Break Through Cancer’s creation, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Galanti, the Red Gates director, said in the Virginia Tech news release that the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute is world-renowned and “pushed the boundaries of what is possible. We are confident that their nimble approach to research, which is focused on the intersections of science, medicine, engineering, and data analytics, will help them make significant breakthroughs that benefit humanity in the years to come.”

Friedlander, who is also the university’s vice president for health sciences and technology, senior dean for research at the medical school, and a professor, discussed on Monday how the institute will move forward with its gift. To hire the new researchers, a search committee will advertise nationally and internationally over the next few years. The money to support them will be heavily dedicated to funding research and equipment, in order to draw the best mix of deeply established researchers and “rising superstars,” he said. 

The institute will be competing with the likes of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and such universities as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins.

The institute’s website lists 37 primary faculty including Friedlander. Fifteen research faculty are listed, along with postdoctoral and research associates, support staff, graduate students, medical students and adjunct faculty.

Meanwhile, the gift will fund the six already-established projects for up to five years:

  • A new technique to target and destroy invasive brain cancer cells. Jennifer Munson is the lead.
  • A remotely delivered smartphone app to help the brain consider future events to reduce smoking and lung cancer among veterans. Warren Bickel is leading it.
  • Combination therapies and delivery routes to target mitochondrial dysfunction in nerve cells to slow and prevent Parkinson’s disease progression. Anthony-Samuel LaMantia and collaborator Read Montague lead the project.
  • New machine learning applications to rapidly measure neurochemicals in the brain for precision diagnosis and tracking of effective therapeutics to treat epilepsy in children. Montague leads that work.
  • Development of a compound that mimics exercise to promote health and to prevent or treat non-communicable diseases including cancer. Zhen Yan and Webster Santos lead it.
  • A new therapeutic approach to reducing side effects of radiation treatment in cancer patients. Robert Gourdie is leading that project.

Gourdie’s team is working with a three-year timeline to put peptides with therapeutic properties into microscopic bubbles called exozomes, or extracellular vesicles, and deliver them internally to treat radiation dermatitis. That combination would solve the problem of peptides, which easily break down when applied alone. The team harvests the exozomes from cow’s milk.

“Because of our experience and because of the resources that the foundation provided, we feel we’ve got a shot at it,” Gourdie said.

Friedlander said that the work these researchers have started is in the translational phase, in between discovery and application.

“That’s all building a base for the future, and the results of all that, the payoff if you will, in terms of deliverables for improved cancer diagnostics and therapeutics, treatments, prevention for example, for some treatments for neurological, neuropsychiatric disorders, those payoffs aren’t going to happen in six months or a year. Frankly, a lot of them won’t happen within three to five years. It will be longer.

“But what we’ll be doing is laying the foundation, getting the information and taking it to the next level. In medical research, you’re constantly building for the next step and sort of building on the shoulders of giants. That’s the greater scientific enterprise that we’re all involved with, frankly.”

As originally posted in Cardinal News by Tad Dickens