The research enterprise for the health care and life sciences sectors is one of the key economic engines for future economic growth in Rhode Island, according to Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee. Providence Business News asked Peter Snyder, senior vice president and chief research officer for Lifespan, which brings in about $80 million a year in research revenues, to offer his insights and vision for the future research landscape in Rhode Island.
PBN: Lifespan’s research division, with its roughly 1,000 employees, brought in about $80 million in research revenue in 2011. What kinds of future growth do you project for the research division?
SNYDER: There is no doubt that federal funding for research has diminished in recent years, with the National Institutes of Health budget either being reduced or remaining flat (depending on the individual institute) over the past three to four years.
Moreover, federal budget issues in Congress mean that the budget for the NIH for 2013 remains unsettled, and this is directly impacting awards of new grants.
More than 80 percent of our external funding at Lifespan comes from either the NIH or other federal agencies.
I have not seen and experienced research-funding concerns of this magnitude before in my career.
Of course, this is frustrating, because as a society we are facing several looming medical crises with massive social and medical-economic implications in the coming decades, and the key to tackling these enormous challenges will be breakthroughs in biomedical research.
That said, our research portfolio across the Lifespan hospitals has been stable in recent years, and we are building new infrastructure (particularly in the Knowledge District) to position ourselves for continued success.
We have tremendously talented researchers, and I expect continued growth in terms of staffing, laboratory space and research support services. We are also attracting several new world-class researchers to head clinical divisions within the hospital system, and these are individuals with excellent grant-funding track records and we expect them to continue to build their portfolios here in Providence.
Finally, our CEO, Dr. Tim Babineau, clearly values and supports our research activities as a central piece of Lifespan’s tripartite mission: clinical care, education and research.
PBN: Do you believe the state of Rhode Island properly values the importance of Lifespan's research division as an economic engine?
SNYDER: I believe that people in the state have a generalized view of what we provide through our biomedical research enterprise, but don’t understand just what is at risk if we are unable to continue to be successful.
As an academic medical center, we play a vital role in the development of a thriving Knowledge District and much is at stake if we are unable to continue to be successful. Already we compete with major research enterprises right in our own region for valuable research dollars.
As a result, we take an active role in many of the state’s activities and planning groups, and I interact regularly with members of state government and our congressional delegation. Lifespan has a seat on the R.I. Science and Technology Advisory Council. We are actively involved in several statewide initiatives, such as the current effort being led by both Lt. Gov. Elizabeth H. Roberts and the director for the Division of Elderly Affairs to draft a state plan for Alzheimer’s and related disorders.
PBN: Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee recently announced the formation of a new College and University Research Collaborative as an economic development initiative. Is this a good first step to in attracting more research dollars? Do you think hospitals should have been included as members of this collaborative?
SNYDER: To the extent that I understand this process, thus far, I think that such a collaborative – if well-branded and well-marketed – can lead to the attraction of more R&D interest and investment in the state.
I am obviously biased, but, yes, I do think that the hospitals should have been included as members of this collaborative. In point of fact, the Lifespan hospital system is an educational institution. Although we are not a degree-granting institution, we actively support and train hundreds of undergraduate students (from a variety of universities), medical students, graduate students, residents, post-doctoral fellows, and visiting scholars from all over the world.
Most of these students and trainees are here to receive research and/or clinical training within our hospitals and laboratories, and we have many investigators who are making new discoveries and developing new therapies or devices. Some of these [discoveries] will (and are currently) leading to commercial success.
PBN: Two new industry cluster groups – the Rhode Island BioScience Leaders and the Rhode Island Med Group – have formed to create a collaborative framework to advocate on behalf of growing the infrastructure to support the growth commercial companies in these sectors. Do you see these efforts as part of the research enterprise -- commercializing and bringing to market the ideas and product applications of research in Rhode Island?
SNYDER: Absolutely. This is certainly the case, and we are involved as members in both of these new cluster groups. This past year, we had 17 disclosures of new intellectual property from Lifespan hospitals-based investigators, and of these disclosures we have filed provisional patents for 10 new inventions. These numbers are fairly typical for any given recent year.
Each patent filing represents significant investment in terms of legal costs, commercial assessments and administrative support. And any attempt to increase our activity in this area, will be critically important moving forward. Unless we work actively with partners across the state, spanning both the private and public sectors, to create a more dynamic environment to support new biotech companies, angel investing, strategic partnerships and licensing deals, we will not see a return on our investment.
We must work across companies and non-profit entities to grow this environment to support innovation, and we need to do this fast to avoid losing all sorts of opportunities to other states. We also have an excellent relationship with the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, and I know that the chamber has these same goals in mind.
PBN: How critical will be the brain research collaboration between Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University and the Prince Neurosciences Institute in making Providence a new global hub of neuroscience research?
SNYDER: I may be once again biased, as I am a neuroscientist myself, but there is little doubt that the neurosciences are a huge area of potential growth for us.
First, we are capitalizing on the tremendous talents in brain research at Brown University. Our partnership with the Brown Institute for Brain Sciences has deepened in many ways over just the past few years.
Second, we have attracted leaders on the clinical side, in neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and other departments, who have the vision and expertise to elevate our research activities in this area.
Finally, as a medical system we are facing massive clinical needs to discover or test new treatments for life-changing diseases or conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and cerebrovascular disease.
We owe it to our community, and to our patients, to be pushing hard in this area. We also can point to some recent successes locally. The Prince Neurosciences Institute is partially supporting a new statewide collaborative effort to advance clinical research on autism, and this is very exciting.
And, researchers within the Institute are actively testing new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, major depression, chronic anxiety disorders, epilepsy and more. There is fierce competition in the neurosciences, across various academic centers nationwide, but our own programs in the neurosciences will continue to grow, and much of our research will continue to garner national and international attention.