The year in review

The Research Institute has lost—in dramatic fashion—the initial hush of its startup phase.

Michael Friedlander

Virginia Tech

Michael Friedlander, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

When I first crossed the threshold of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute’s new home just over a year ago, I was struck by the pervading silence. My colleagues and I had all just left well-established medical centers, where we were accustomed to clamor and commotion. But here we were, just a handful of people, barely breaking the hush of the long corridors, the empty offices, and the cavernous laboratories with their gleaming benches and untouched equipment.

It didn’t take long, though, for that hush to turn to a hum—and even a pronounced buzz. In the past year, I’m delighted to say, the Institute has grown tremendously. We’ve recruited a dozen major research teams, led by top talent from such places as Baylor College of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and the National Institutes of Health. We now have nearly a hundred employees working together to solve major challenges in the science of medicine and health care.

Our scientists are conducting innovative research on major disorders of human brain health—including addiction, autism, cerebral palsy, depression, epilepsy, mental retardation, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury—as well as cancer and infectious diseases. To tackle these complex challenges, we’re using innovative approaches that marry the disciplines of biology, computer science, bioengineering, economics, genetics, mathematics, chemistry, and psychology with the most advanced technologies, from laser-based optical imaging of living cells, to high-resolution imaging of individual molecules, to genetic analyses of viral mutations, to functional magnetic resonance imaging of activity in the living human brain.

One highlight of this past year, in fact, has been the installation and activation of three research-dedicated magnetic resonance imaging machines. The two 30,000-pound machines at our Roanoke facility called for a dramatic installation: removing exterior walls, lining the rooms with electromagnetic shielding, isolating the floor slabs to eliminate vibration, creating backup power and cooling systems, and, finally, hoisting the machines by crane to the second floor. More dramatic than these installations, however, has been the critical role these machines are already playing in enabling unparalleled new research programs, including an international functional brain imaging network.

Through this network and with the newly launched Roanoke Brain Study, the Institute is becoming the hub for interactive functional brain imaging around the world. Our two MRIs in Roanoke connect not only with the third MRI at our satellite facility in Blacksburg, but also with MRIs at collaborative sites across the United States and in Europe and Asia. The large-scale and uniquely interactive research that this technology enables—along with the many collaborations that it makes possible—are providing new insights into the decision-making operations of the human brain. Already Institute scientists are studying brain function in healthy volunteers and will be extending these studies to people who have suffered stroke or a traumatic brain injury, or have autism spectrum disorder, dementia, depression, or chronic addiction.

As notable as it is, the Roanoke Brain Study is just one of many initiatives at the Institute. Our scientists are also inventing new technologies for treating brain disease without surgery, for example, through the therapeutic activation of microscopic networks of living cells. Institute researchers are developing promising new approaches to enhance working memory and to control addiction through behavioral training. And they are developing innovative therapies to give children the healthy start they deserve. Our faculty members and their research teams have been publishing their findings in leading, high-impact scientific, medical, and behavioral journals. Their pioneering work continues to be recognized with honors, awards, and more than $30 million in funding awarded through nationally competitive peer-reviewed grant processes.

As part of our mission to capture the excitement and promise of scientific research, this past year the Institute launched the Distinguished Visiting Scholars Series, which brings some of the world’s leading medical researchers and scientific thought leaders to Roanoke. One recent highlight was the visit of Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. More than 300 people attended her compelling public lecture on addiction or viewed its live webcast, while nearly 200 people watched her research seminar the following day. Other early talks have included those by Dr. Ron Davis, chair of neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, on how memories are formed and retained; Dr. Matt Wachowiak, an associate professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, on the sense of smell; and Dr. Patricia Churchland, a noted neurophilosopher from the University of California, San Diego, on the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy.

This series has been just one effort toward contributing to Virginia’s scientifically and intellectually rich environment. We host a research seminar series, for instance, that is aimed in large part at the broader Virginia Tech academic and Carilion medical communities. In June, we participated in Meet the Scientists, a research-rich program at the Virginia Tech Research Center–Arlington, where the Institute has its Northern Virginia satellite. More recently, we hosted the Southwest Virginia Life Science Forum, an annual event of the Roanoke–Blacksburg Technology Council and the Virginia Biotechnology Association. This event provided an opportunity for university scientists and industry researchers to exchange ideas and for biotechnology entrepreneurs to learn about the latest research.

We have been building ties within the local community as well. In May, we joined with the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in holding a Grand Opening Celebration, to which we invited the Roanoke community. In July, we hosted a weeklong summer camp sponsored by the Science Museum of Western Virginia to engage middle-school students in science. And throughout the year we have been collaborating with local hospitals—including our partner, Carilion Clinic, and the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center—as well as working with community outreach, educational, and business organizations on a range of projects to help enrich our community.

We have also strengthened our teaching role at the School of Medicine, where I serve as the senior dean for research. This role provides us with an opportunity to help formulate the research component of the medical school curriculum. Many of our faculty members teach in that curriculum and serve as mentors on research projects or as course directors.

For all these milestones, our work has barely begun. Our mission is fueled by the high costs to society of disease, injury, and addiction—including untold suffering, lives lost, potential unrealized, and an economic impact measured at more than a trillion dollars a year. We’ll be recruiting at least a dozen additional research teams over the next three years, and we expect this growth to attract research support of more than $100 million with as many as 300 employees. With this critical mass of investigators—and in collaboration with Virginia Tech scientists and students, Carilion Clinic physicians, and other health care providers in the community—we can accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and contribute to healthy lives through disease prevention, early diagnosis, novel treatments, and effective policies in health care, disease prevention, and education.

We follow a simple motto: Good science makes good health makes good sense. Good science also saves money for our local, state, and national economies, and it fuels the region’s economic engine of discovery-based technology. We expect the intellectual property that our scientists develop, for example, to produce startup business ventures in both Roanoke and Blacksburg. The first such venture is being launched later this year.

Our goals are clear and attainable: to make transformative scientific advances in understanding and addressing the fundamental processes of human health and disease; to train the next generation of biomedical science leaders; to facilitate discovery-based medical education; to sustain and strengthen the Virginia Tech–Carilion partnership; to be good citizens in the community and surrounding region; and to build one of the nation’s premier biomedical research environments.

We could not succeed in these goals, of course, without the vision and support of key leaders in Virginia Tech, Carilion Clinic, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the local and regional communities. I want to thank them all for their invaluable support. I want to thank, too, all my colleagues who have joined me in embarking on this venture, in many cases moving their families, scientific programs, and research teams to join this unique startup enterprise. They are the ones making the dream happen.

I’m happy to report that the Institute’s initial hush has been broken—and resoundingly—and that this powerful new research program is on course for tremendous innovation and discovery in the service of health.

Michael J. Friedlander, PhD
Executive Director, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute
Professor of Biological Sciences, Biomedical Engineering, and Science, Virginia Tech
Senior Dean for Research, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine