Michael Friedlander receives 2015 Regional Leadership Award

Michael Friedlander receives Regional Leadership Award
Michael Friedlander gives remarks after receiving the 2015 Regional Leadership Award.

Michael Friedlander, founding executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, was honored at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council’s recent TechNite Awards Banquet. Friedlander was selected out of 20 nominees to receive the 2015 Regional Leadership Award at the annual celebration, held on May 8 at Hotel Roanoke.

The Regional Leadership Award recognizes an individual who succeeds professionally and exemplifies leadership through significant contributions to the Roanoke–Blacksburg community.

Friedlander serves as the associate provost for health sciences at Virginia Tech, where he is also a professor of biological sciences and of biomedical engineering and sciences. At the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Friedlander is the senior dean for research and the chair of biomedical science, as well as a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine.

The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute opened its doors in September 2010 and quickly established itself as an emerging leader in biomedical research, developing strengths in brain and behavior research, cancer biology, cardiovascular science, regenerative medicine, immunology, and infectious disease.

“This community has a welcoming and entrepreneurial spirit unparalleled in cities of similar size,” Friedlander said. “Coupled with the enthusiasm for moving the frontiers of science and medicine demonstrated by Virginia Tech’s and Carilion’s leadership, how can we not succeed?”

Under Friedlander’s leadership, the institute now has 24 research teams, more than 200 employees, and more than $50 million in active extramural research funding. To date, the institute has had $100 million in research expenditures. The economic impact on the Roanoke community has already been more than $200 million.

“Each of the institute’s research teams operates like a small business, with annual research expenditures ranging from a half a million dollars to more than two million dollars and teams of up to 20 people,” Friedlander said.

The institute’s research team leaders have been recruited to Roanoke from Bethesda, Birmingham, Boston, Charleston, Houston, Little Rock, London, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC. These scientists have come from academic institutions such as Baylor College of Medicine, Brandeis University, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Georgetown University, Harvard University, the National Institutes of Health, University College London, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Utah, the University of Washington, and Virginia Commonwealth University. They also come from private industry, including the biotechnology industry.

Institute scientists conduct biomedical and health sciences research that spans from fundamental discovery to translation to application and commercialization. The institute’s researchers have had several major advances recently. One team developed a new rapid, accurate, and noninvasive diagnostic test for autism in children, while another team conducted international clinical trials to establish the effectiveness of a new, potent wound healing drug for repairing injury and tissue damage such as venous leg ulcers.

More advances include the development of real-time, feedback-based human brain imaging for future application in traumatic brain injury, stroke, and psychiatric disorders, as well the development of a novel therapeutic approach for treating addiction through training the brain’s working memory mechanism to offset excessive discounting of the future. Another team of institute scientists led the discovery and application of an effective, intensive interventional therapy to treat children with cerebral palsy, and yet another group of scientists discovered an interactive pathway in the immune system for the development of new therapeutics for improved vaccine efficacy.

The scientists have also collaborated across fields to develop several new therapeutic approaches for malignant brain cancer, including a therapy discovered by the institute’s newest recruit, Harald Sontheimer, who has purified and synthesized a highly complex molecule from the venom of a giant scorpion that is proving effective in clinical trials.

In addition to their fundamental research, the institute’s faculty members have developed considerable intellectual property. They have filed several patents, and several of them have developed companies and commercialization of their intellectual property, including Robert Gourdie’s FirstString, Inc.; Sontheimer’s Transmolecular Inc.; and William “Jamie” Tyler’s Thync.

In a recent partnership, coordinated by Friedlander, institute researchers will work with investigators and clinicians from the Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University School of Medicine and Public Health to develop a collaborative clinical and translational research center focused on children’s health. Institute scientists have also worked with colleagues across the entire Virginia Tech campus to launch an innovative doctoral program in Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health that has received national acclaim.

Friedlander and his wife, Sandra, moved to Roanoke from Houston, where he was the chair of the Baylor College of Medicine’s neuroscience department, the Wilhelmina Robertson Professor of Neuroscience, and director of the school’s neuroscience initiatives, a coordinated approach to basic and clinical brain research. Before that, Friedlander was the founding chair of the Department of Neurobiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the director of the university’s Civitan International Research Center on intellectual disabilities, and the McKnight Endowed Professor of Memory and Aging. He also served as the chair of the National Consortium of Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities.

Friedlander has received the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow Award, a National Institutes of Health Fogarty Center International Fellowship, program development awards from the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust and the W. M. Keck Foundation, the American College of Physicians William Menninger Prize for Mental Health Research, the First Annual Undergraduate Neuroscience Distinguished Scholar Award from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of Illinois Distinguished Alumnus Award in Molecular and Integrative Physiology.

Friedlander is an elected Distinguished Service Member of the Association of American Medical Colleges, for which he has served on numerous national task forces and boards, including the AAMC–Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scientific Foundations of Future Physicians Task Force, the AAMC MR5 MCAT Review Task Force, the AAMC Task Force on Industry Funding of Medical Education, and the AAMC National Advisory Panel on Research.

Friedlander is also an elected member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, founding president of the Association of Medical School Neuroscience Department Chairs, and chair of the external scientific advisory board of the Children’s National Medical Center.

Friedlander serves on the editorial boards of several scientific journals and has published his own work in such leading journals as Academic Medicine, Cell, Nature, Neuron, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Science. He has served or currently serves as principal investigator on Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation grants, as well as a range of National Institutes of Health funding mechanisms, including multiple individual research grants, program project grants, center grants, and training grants. His own research grants have generated more than $50 million.

Friedlander also serves on the boards of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and the Science Museum of Western Virginia. He teaches and oversees research mentoring of undergraduate students, graduate students, and medical students. In addition, he is actively involved in a range of community educational programs, including Brain Awareness Week, the Virginia Science Festival, the institute’s annual Brain School series, the institute’s Distinguished Scholars Series, and a medical research summer camp cosponsored with the Science Museum of Western Virginia.

Recently, Friedlander has been working closely with Virginia’s other major research universities, state government, health systems, and private industry to help develop major research initiatives across the commonwealth.

“I attribute the success of the institute to four major factors: the incredibly talented, entrepreneurial, and dedicated faculty and staff who have made it the force that it is; the support and visionary leadership of Virginia Tech and Carilion; the support of the Roanoke and New River valleys; and my wife, Sandra,” Friedlander said. “Sandra has unparalleled dedication, acumen, and kindness. She helps people feel like they can make Roanoke their home. She’s the single best recruiter I’ve ever known.”

Friedlander envisions the institute’s continued major growth and success and growing impact on the Roanoke community.

“I expect the institute to approach a billion dollars in economic impact over the next five to seven years,” Friedlander said. “I’m also expecting major research breakthroughs that will improve the health of Roanokers and Virginians – and people all over the world, leading Roanoke to become a recognized hub for the economic impact of biomedical science as well as an innovation engine for better health internationally.”