After 50 years as a biomedical researcher, Edgar Garcia-Rill, Ph.D., is close to hanging up his lab coat. When he does, he’ll look back on the last 15 years as the most rewarding of his distinguished career.
“It will be like retiring after winning the Super Bowl,” said the UAMS professor in the Department of Neurobiology & Developmental Sciences.
Fifteen years ago is when Garcia-Rill secured UAMS’ first Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) award and established the Center for Translational Neuroscience (CTN). Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the expiring COBRE has been awarded $21,650,223 for investigator support and research infrastructure to UAMS researchers, including those based at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute.
But what gets Garcia-Rill truly excited is the 6-to-1 return on the COBRE investment and having grown new, independent researchers, with programs and centers that will continue for many years to come.
In its final report, the External Advisory Committee for the COBRE writes glowingly about the CTN under Garcia-Rill’s leadership. It notes the CTN’s support of 36 researchers who have reaped more than $120 million in funding from outside of UAMS.
“In summary, Dr. Edgar Garcia-Rill’s accomplishments at UAMS cannot be overstated,” the External Advisory Committee report concludes. “The CoBRE program was established to develop self-sustaining, cutting-edge research programs, especially for young and new investigators. The Center for Translational Neuroscience under Dr. Garcia-Rill’s guidance has been unequivocally one of the most successful programs in the nation and is a ‘poster child’ for the IDeA (NIH Institutional Development Award) program.”
The committee’s members are: R. Eugene Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Oklahoma; J. Scott Richards, Ph.D., the University of Alabama; Charles Hollingsworth, Dr.P.H., now retired from NIH; and Scott R. Whittemore, Ph.D., University of Louisville.
Garcia-Rill said a key to the CTN’s early success was having the only COBRE at UAMS. With the CTN offering grants of up to $250,000 per year, it attracted the best early-career researchers from UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Research Institute.
While the External Advisory Committee made the decisions about which grant applications to fund, Garcia-Rill said he never disagreed with their picks. “It’s been pretty obvious whom to fund,” he said. “And usually I erred on the side of caution by giving money to as many as I was allowed; I gave to five project investigators every year because I wanted maximum output.”
Once the mentoring program got going, he would meet regularly with the researchers and their mentors to ensure their career development was proceeding apace.
“We managed to succeed very nicely,” he said.
“Grateful” for CTN
One researcher who benefited from the CTN is UAMS’ Michael Mancino, M.D., who said he will always be grateful for its support.
“The assignment and support from my mentor who has also become a collaborator were invaluable as a busy clinician trying to make my way into the clinical research arena,” said Mancino, an associate professor and director of the Center for Addiction Services and Treatment. “Through my participation in the CTN, I was able to generate the pilot data needed for obtaining my first NIH National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) grant to study persons with methamphetamine use disorder.”
Mancino said the grant also allowed time for authoring publications that otherwise would not have been possible. This eventually led to an R01 NIH grant to study improving outcomes in prescription opioid use disorders. Mancino is co-principal investigator on the study with his mentor, Alison Oliveto, Ph.D., professor and vice chair for Research in the Department of Psychiatry.
Under Garcia-Rill’s leadership, the COBRE funding also helped seed a number of large programs, including:
- IDeA States Pediatric Clinical Trial Network (ISPCTN) Data Coordinating and Operations Center, $41.8 million
- Center for Translational Pediatric Research, $11.5 million
- Center for Studies of Host Response to Cancer Therapy, $10.5 million
- Center for Musculoskeletal Disease Research, $11.3 million
UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Research Institute have five COBREs and Garcia-Rill is on each of their internal advisory committees.
He was an advocate for pursuing the additional COBRES, and he hopes more will follow when the time comes.
Although states are limited to five COBRES, Garcia-Rill notes that when a COBRE is 10 years old and entering its third and final phase, it opens a slot for a new COBRE. That means UAMS could apply for one to replace the CTN, and another in three years, when the Center for Microbial Pathogenesis and Host Inflammatory Responses COBRE enters its final phase.
The EAC report notes that UAMS’ William Fantegrossi, Ph.D., who is among the most successful CTN-supported basic science researchers, is planning to apply for a COBRE. Fantegrossi, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, College of Medicine, became the Behavioral Core director and an independently funded researcher.
“We gave him an equipment grant and he did a fantastic job and parlayed that into NIH and Drug Enforcement Administration funded programs, so he’s ideal,” Garcia-Rill said. “He has the qualifications for a successful COBRE principal investigator in an area where there’s tons of drug addiction money and very few COBREs on drug addiction.”
Among the final report’s highlighted achievements is the significantly reduced infant mortality rate thanks to the CTN’s Telemedicine Core Facility. Led by Whit Hall, M.D, its educational and consultation program for rural hospital nurseries, called PedsPLACE, has saved about 60 babies per year since 2009. As a result, Arkansas Medicaid will fund the program in perpetuity.
Hall, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics, College of Medicine, is applying for an NIH grant to support an expansion of PedsPLACE in Mississippi.
“We have people standing in line who are ready to apply for and will succeed in getting new COBREs,” Garcia-Rill said. “There will be more centers popping up, which is exactly what the IDeA States program wants because it is an infrastructure development program.”
With his CTN phasing out, some of its infrastructure will be transitioned to a Neurobiology Center that’s being established by Gwen Childs, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Developmental Sciences, College of Medicine, and Angus MacNicol, Ph.D., also a professor in that department.
“It was all a great thing and it was fun,” Garcia-Rill said of the last 15 years. “People are happy when they get funded, so what’s not to like.”
Garcia-Rill will remain at UAMS through next spring, then pursue his other passion – writing. His third book, on neurological and psychiatric diseases, will be published this summer. He’s also drafted a book of fiction, the first in a trilogy based loosely on his family history.