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Research Progress and Potential in the Bayou State

Research conducted at Louisiana institutions benefits not only those in the state but also people across the country, said Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) during his opening remarks at the Louisiana Research Summit held on February 16 at the University Medical Center in New Orleans. The summit, co-hosted by Research!America, assembled federal, state, university, and business leaders to discuss current challenges and opportunities for advancing research in Louisiana.  At several junctures during the summit, Senator Cassidy stressed the importance of making Louisiana “easy to work with” by lowering administrative barriers and building on success to date. He also emphasized that the summit was not designed as a one-time event, but rather the catalyst for seizing opportunity in the months ahead.  

Diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart disease are serious health issues in Louisiana. In some Louisiana parishes, the rate of diabetes is 50% higher than the rest of the nation. Louisiana State University (LSU) President F. King Alexander, underscored the need for cooperation across research sectors to address the “heavy burden of disease” in the state.  He also emphasized the importance of working to assure that “the public knows we are here to solve problems.”  

“Sometimes the missing piece in driving a state forward in leadership for science is attracting public support. Is there public support for research in Louisiana?” asked Mary Woolley, president and CEO, Research!America. She shared findings from a recent public opinion survey commissioned by Research!America that showed 89% of Louisianans say it’s important for the state to be a leader in medical and health research. Woolley encouraged all research stakeholders at the summit to “keep connecting the dots for the public between research, including that performed at academic institutions, and better health and quality of life.”

Funding trailblazers and taking risks to invest in research across scientific disciplines is key, according to Dr. France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). “You never know when or where a discovery will be made,” she added. Dr. Córdova recognized LSU physics and astronomy professor Gabriela Gonzalez and the NSF-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, located in Livingston, Louisiana for playing a major role in confirming Albert Einstein’s general theory of relatively. The recent discovery has opened new opportunities in understanding the cosmos.  

“We are in debt to Louisiana that the NIH even exists,” noted Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Collins was referring to late Louisiana Senator Joseph Ransdell who led the charge of changing the scope, as well as the name of the “Hygienic Laboratory” to the National Institutes of Health. The 1930 Ransdell Act also authorized the establishment of fellows for research into basic biological and medical problems. Dr. Collins highlighted NIH-supported initiatives in the state including research into the microbiome at LSU and the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT) at Tulane University School of Medicine aimed at determining if a lower recommended blood pressure might help to decrease stroke, heart disease, and other related health threats.  Like Dr. Cordova, Dr. Collins emphasized the importance of investing in young scientists.  

Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation & Research, stressed the need to build the infrastructure to support more clinical trials in Louisiana and suggested that undertaking revolutionized drug manufacturing in Louisiana could help address the problem of drug shortages across the country. “Advancing medical progress is of critical importance to the economy in Louisiana, as well as to improving the lives of citizens,” she said.

Work is underway to drive toward more research capacity in the state, said Dr. Laura Levy, vice-president for research at Tulane University.  Dr. Levy provided an overview of “Fostering Innovation Through Research in Science and Technology In Louisiana,” or “FIRST Louisiana,” a comprehensive statewide approach to science and technology research. The statewide plan was developed collaboratively by research leadership at the state’s universities under the chairmanship of Dr. Leslie Guice, now president of Louisiana Tech University, and was formally adopted by the Board of Regents in 2010.  “FIRST Louisiana” advances strategies to build research and innovation in areas of strategic importance to the state that also align with industry and business priorities, including energy and the environment, biomedical science, agriculture and the digital world.  Facilitating partnerships between the academic research community, industry and business to spur innovation and build long-lasting capacity in the state is a key part of the plan, noted Dr. Levy.

“It takes passion to accomplish something big to bring communities together,” said Dr. Mark Trusheim, of MIT Sloan School of Management. He emphasized the value of collaboration among scientists and of connecting the strengths of each area of research, whether it’s within the university or industry, and wherever it is located, is important to accomplishing the common goal of finding cures.

The Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort program, led by the NIH and described earlier in the day by Dr. Collins, will examine the molecular, clinical, environmental and lifestyle data of one million volunteers to help determine the best treatment for an individual. Dr. Douglas Greene, chief scientific officer and executive vice president of Ikaria, Inc. noted that precision medicine has the potential to find solutions to health burdens like obesity. Louisiana ranks fourth in obesity in the United States. 

In a panel discussion co-moderated by Richard Lipsey, Chair of the Louisiana State Board of Regents, and John Davies, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, business and philanthropic leaders discussed specific suggestions for elevating Louisiana through education and innovation.  Louisiana Tech president Dr. Leslie Guice made closing remarks highlighting next steps, including creating a mechanism to go after large center grants, finding a way to achieve a centralized institutional review board (IRB) and otherwise make Louisiana a “user friendly” environment for potential sponsors of research, including sponsors from venture capital and philanthropy.               

The summit also featured a showcase of current research projects from institutions across the state focused on alcohol/drug abuse, cancer, cardiovascular disease, health disparities, infectious disease, neuroscience, obesity/diabetes, precision medicine/big data, research networks, and innovation/entrepreneurism.   

To view the Louisiana survey results click here.