Baohong Yuan was a biomedical researcher in Washington, D.C., when he saw a recruiting advertisement that prompted him to uproot his life and head for the University of Texas at Arlington.
UTA’s bioengineering department was investing heavily in biomedical imaging and looking for a researcher who could take the technology to another level — combining light with ultra-sound for deep-tissue, high-resolution imaging.
For years, Yuan had been developing that technology for monitoring tumors. He knew it was a perfect fit when he arrived for his interview.
“I met a lot of colleagues. They were so research active, which really surprised me,” said Yuan, an associate professor of bioengineering. “I really wanted to join this environment to develop this technology.”
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During the past seven years, Yuan’s research has coincided with UTA’s emergence as an important player in cancer research. Last year, the university was awarded $6 million in new grants for developing cancer-fighting technologies — its most ever for that purpose.
Certainly, 2016 is a high-water mark for us.
Duane Dimos, UTA’s vice president for research
The total included a $900,000 grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas for Yuan to continue his own mission, which includes putting the power of an MRI machine in a hand-held device.
“Certainly, 2016 is a high-water mark for us,” said Duane Dimos, UTA’s vice president for research. “I would say the combination of the existing faculty experts along with a lot of really great new faculty hires — that has led to our assertion that we’re becoming a major cancer research institution.”
UTA has more than 25 cancer researchers in its biology, bioengineering and computer science colleges and has 13 cancer-related patents issued in the past five years.
Last year, UTA joined the ranks of top research universities listed by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, joining an elite group of 115 R1 doctoral universities including MIT, Harvard and Johns Hopkins.
UTA also is investing in research infrastructure, the centerpiece being its $125 million, 220,000-square-foot Science and Engineering Innovation and Research building, which will be the university’s signature site for multidisciplinary life and health science teaching and research. Construction started in October and the building is expected to open in August 2018.
Dimos said the university is positioning itself as “the innovation hub around cancer for the North Texas region.”
UTA has also begun partnering with entrepreneurs to fast track development of faculty and researcher innovations for commercial markets. Universities license their patents either to existing companies or to small startups they help create.
“It’s not new, but I’m seeing more of it,” said Darlene Boudreaux, executive director of TECH Fort Worth, a nonprofit incubator that matches innovators with entrepreneurs and helps them launch operations. Founded in 1998, it provides startup space in a 17,000-square-foot building through a joint venture with the city of Fort Worth, UTA and the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
The more research grants a university has, the more opportunity it has to discover something patentable.
Darlene Boudreaux, executive director of the business incubator TECH Fort Worth
In collaboration with TECH Fort Worth, the Health Science Center also operates an Acceleration Lab Program in Fort Worth, which offers six leasable labs for startup companies and two core laboratories where scientists can share expensive equipment such as microscopes and chemical analyzers. The program helps new companies move their technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace.
“The more research grants a university has, the more opportunity it has to discover something patentable,” Boudreaux said. “And the more patents a university has, the more opportunity to license technology to private companies. … And the money that comes into startups goes into the community to build and launch their products.”
So far, UTA has two private enterprises working on cancer research — AbeXXa Biologics, which opened last year in the school’s Nano Technology Research Center, and Tuevol Therapeutics, which was founded in 2014 and is in an off-campus lab. Both were created by professors wanting to advance their own research.
AbeXXa founder Jon Weidanz, UTA’s associate vice president for research and a biology professor, said nurturing spin-off businesses to develop technologies is a model that has proven successful around the country.
“It drives the success of the local economies in those areas,” said Weidanz, whose research focus is on an emerging field of therapies and treatments aimed at using a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. UTA recruited him partly for his experience starting research companies.
“By having successful startups on campus or around the Arlington and Fort Worth area,” he said, “we begin to create a new sense of awareness that UTA is not only doing great things — which it has been doing for years — but it’s able to have an impact on our community in terms of providing medical solutions, creating economic opportunity, recruiting new money into the area.
“Venture funds would be looking at UTA in a different way,” he added.
Cancer research has deep support through federal, state and private grant sources. UTA officials are optimistic that funding will continue rolling in, and in even bigger numbers this year, despite nationwide belt-tightening.
Congressional funding for the National Cancer Institute, the largest provider of cancer research funding, has not kept up with inflation for more than a decade.
The annual budget of the National Cancer Institute, the large funding source for cancer research, grew from $2.55 billion in fiscal 1998 to $5.21 billion in 2016. But that amounted to just $2.997 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars over that period.
“Federal investment in cancer research has been stagnant since 2003,” Douglas Lowry, acting director of the National Cancer Institute, said in the agency’s budget plan and proposal for fiscal year 2017. He recommends an annual increase of 7 percent for 10 years to “restore the NCI’s purchasing power and accelerate scientific discovery.”
The NCI’s annual budget grew from $2.55 billion in fiscal 1998 to $5.21 billion in 2016. But that amounts to only $2.997 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars over that period, according to an agency funding chart.
Many other public and private grant sources for cancer research exist, including the American Cancer Society, a nonprofit that invested more than $95 million in research grants in 2015, and $4.5 billion since 1946. The ACS is funding 54 grants in Texas worth $30.3 million, and 748 grants totaling $406.9 million nationwide.
“We have funded, at least some point in their careers, 47 Nobel Prize winners,” said Evelyn Barella, ACS director of media relations. “There’s not another nonprofit organization that can touch that.”
But the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas funding has been “critical” during this period of grant uncertainty, said Michael Cho, chairman of bioengineering at UTA.
“National funding has been lacking, but then a program like CPRIT kicks in, specifically designed for diagnosis and treatment of cancer,” Cho said. “The bioengineering department has been a beneficiary of this very targeted investment.”
CPRIT was created by a voter-approved constitutional amendment in 2007 that authorized the state to issue $3 billion in bonds to fund Texas-based cancer research and prevention services.
In 2016, it funded not only Yuan’s $900,000 grant but also an $823,000 grant to cell biology researcher Mark Pellegrino, an assistant biology professor at UTA.
Yuan, who came to America from China 14 years ago to explore his imaging technology concept, is using nano-particles that attach to various types of molecules on tumors and the blood vessels the tumor creates to feed itself. The particles, activated by ultrasound, help focus and sharpen the imaging, and in the future they could be used to carry drugs to precise targets, leaving healthy tissue alone.
He’s been awarded five grants totaling $2.9 million since 2010 for his research. And he plans to apply for a $100,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to help start up a business to commercialize his technology.
He’s nearing the end of a long journey, he said, but there’s much more more work to do.
“When you have some idea, you really push it forward. If you don’t do anything, the idea is just an idea,” Yuan said. “The progress, that’s why I’m excited. We still have a lot of challenges to overcome, but at this level, I feel we are successful.”