Governor, Virginia Tech Carilion officials break ground on VTC Biomedical Research Expansion


By Don Petersen

Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea (from left), Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology Michael Friedlander, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Carilion Clinic President and CEO Nancy Agee, and Carilion Clinic Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Patrice M. Weiss break ground to officially announce construction on the VTC Biomedical Research Expansion.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe today joined Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic officials to begin construction on a new facility in Roanoke to expand biomedical research and provide enhanced experiential learning opportunities to students at all levels.

Known as the Virginia Tech Carilion Biomedical Research Expansion, the 139,000-gross-square-foot building will rise on the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Campus at Jefferson Street and Reserve Avenue.

The building will be physically connected by an elevated walkway to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute, which opened seven years ago.

The new building is an expansion on the success of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and will provide additional state-of-the-art research laboratories organized around interactive research themes and infused with experiential learning environments.

“I congratulate Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic for their commitment to biomedical research in our commonwealth,” said McAuliffe. “This new facility will allow scientists and clinicians to intersect and exchange ideas that will provide tremendous benefits to the people of Virginia and the world. We are building a foundation that will establish Virginia as a hotbed for cutting-edge companies that want to benefit from a world-class business environment and a highly trained technical workforce.”

Roanoke Mayor Sherman P. Lea pointed to the partnership as a wellspring of new business and educational opportunities in the seven-time All-America City.

In addition, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, Carilion Clinic President and CEO Nancy Howell Agee, Virginia Tech Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology Michael J. Friedlander, and Carilion Clinic Executive Vice President Patrice M. Weiss talked about rising expectations of the partnership.

A new era of progress

“In the first 10 years of the Virginia Tech-Carilion Clinic partnership, we created a research institute that makes a huge impact for its size, and we created what is regarded as one of the best research-oriented medical schools in the country,” Sands said. “More faculty members and students from Virginia Tech’s colleges will be involved in this next phase. Undergraduates and students pursuing higher degrees will increasingly come to the VTC Health Sciences and Technology (HS&T) Campus for opportunities to interact with world-class researchers and Carilion clinicians. Our efforts to translate the discoveries that are made in the HS&T partnership into companies and solutions and to attract partners globally, are going to receive a tremendous boost.”

Officials say the new building is expected to be the next — not the last — product to spring from the Virginia Tech-Carilion Clinic relationship.

“Looking back more than 10 years ago, two aspirational conversations were happening in parallel — one at Carilion Clinic, one at Virginia Tech,” Agee said. “We began to think, ‘Wow, what if we do something together? And what might that look like?’ And I think that was the launch of something phenomenal. What we’ve gained from it is truly exponential and the biggest gains in terms of growth and service to the community are still ahead of us.”

Planners at AECOM, the engineering and design firm, have worked closely with Virginia Tech Carilion teams to develop the VTC Biomedical Research Expansion as a vibrant place for people to connect, brainstorm, and carry out leading biomedical research. It is being built, like the VTCRI, on reclaimed industrial land.

Working on the inside

“A great deal of thoughtful discussion and envisioning the future have occurred over the last two years among the leadership of Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic, biomedical research scientists at VTCRI and across the university, and physicians from Carilion Clinic and the VTC School of Medicine to identify the strategic areas on which to focus,” said Friedlander, who is also the founding executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “We arrived at some that are extensions of existing strengths — such as our efforts in brain research and cardiovascular science and the growing area of infectious diseases and immunology — but a couple are taking us into new spaces.”

One new springboard area focuses on metabolism and obesity research. The work will address a number of health challenges throughout the United States in terms of obesity and metabolic disorders that can often lead to diabetes, heart disease, and a variety of related ailments.

Another emerging area in the VTC Biomedical Research Expansion involves biomaterials and body device interfaces.

“Next-generation biomaterials and devices, including sensors and interfaces, provide exciting areas for translational and transformational medical research,” Friedlander said. “Identifying and developing smart, compatible materials to implant in the human body to help heal tissues, and developing devices to monitor, modulate, or even functionally replace systems that have failed, represent exciting opportunities to enhance quality of life. These are strategic areas where laboratory discoveries can move into clinical application to address health care needs.”

Cancer studies will connect several primary focus areas, including brain health and disorders, immunology and infectious disease, and obesity and metabolic disorders, Friedlander said.

An enhanced collaboration with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, for example, will focus on comparative oncology where new treatments for cancers will be developed to help human patients as well as offering new treatments for companion animals that often develop some of the same or similar cancers as humans.

“By sharing the scientific insights of our people working in human, laboratory-based, and companion-animal medicine and science, we can converge on problems in cancer treatment,” Friedlander said, noting that Virginia Tech translational biology, medicine, and health graduate students are already collaborating on translational projects with VTCRI scientists and Carilion physicians in such areas as sudden cardiac death, wound healing, addiction, traumatic brain injury, and cancer.

Moving forward

Working together continually produces benefits, according to Weiss, who is also Carilion Clinic’s chief medical officer.

“As a result of our partnership with Virginia Tech, our clinicians are informing the development of new health procedures and giving undergraduate neuroscience students the chance to follow our neurosurgery team … all the way into the operating room,” she said.

The $90 million research building is expected to open in spring 2020. Plans to develop additional services in Roanoke to support faculty and students are underway, as are efforts to enlist support from the private sector and donors.

“There is certainly a role for philanthropy that’s going to be key here,” Sands 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.”

During the program, Sands commended the governor for keeping higher education a priority throughout his administration and looked forward to his continued work with the Growth4VA program, an effort launched by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council and supported by businesses, colleges, and universities.

Agee also recognized Virginia policymakers who supported the burgeoning Virginia Tech–Carilion Clinic partnership, including the late Lacey Putney of Bedford County, the longest serving member of the Virginia Legislature, who in his role as chair of the House Appropriations Committee secured the state’s original funding of the VTC School of Medicine and Research Institute.

The Virginia Tech-Carilion partnership originated as the brainchild of former Virginia Tech President Charles Steger and the late Edward Murphy, a former Carilion Clinic chief executive officer who died on Oct. 15.

His passing was remembered Tuesday.

“Because of Dr. Murphy’s original vision and his close working relationship with President Steger, we have made many great accomplishments and are positioned very well for the future,” Sands said. “Ed will be missed by the many who worked with him, and his imprint on our community will be felt for generations to come,” Agee said.

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

Expect fresh faces

As for the new initiatives, people should expect new faces on the VTC Health Sciences and Technology campus.

“We continue to recruit additional faculty of the caliber of the world class scientists who have been the vanguard of the Roanoke biomedical research enterprise at the VTC Research Institute,” Friedlander said. The metabolism and obesity research area, for example, will involve scientists from the new VTCRI Center for Transformative Research on Health Behaviors, the VTCRI Addiction Recovery Research Center, the department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; the department of psychology, the department of biological sciences and the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science; as well as physicians from the VTC School of Medicine’s department of family and community medicine, department of medicine, and the department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine.

Similarly, the biomaterials and body-device interfaces research will engage faculty and students from the department of biomedical engineering and mechanics, the Bradley department of electrical and computer engineering, the department of computer science and the department of chemical engineering from the College of Engineering.

In addition, taking part will be computational, cognitive and molecular neuroscientists, and cardiovascular scientists from the VTCRI, as well as Carilion physicians and VTC School of Medicine faculty from the department of orthopaedic surgery and the department of surgery, including neurosurgeons and general surgeons, from the VTC School of Medicine.